Do you have to comply with police orders?


Police commands can create legally binding obligations, the moment they are given, so do we always have to obey police orders? We asked nationally recognized police law expert, Prof. Rachel Harmon (UVA Law School). According to Prof. Harmon, certain police orders are unlawful (for example orders that violate Constitutional rights). If a police command is unlawful, and if the police use force to enforce the order, they could be subject to civil and potentially criminal liability. That said, what should an individual do if they believe that an order is unlawful? Prof. Harmon explains that rational actors will often "comply now complain later," but in some cases there may be no legal recourse for an unlawful police command where the citizen complied with the officer. The interview explores police commands their limits and where bad commands can escalate violence leading to unnecessary use of force.

Rachel Harmon is a nationally-renowned police law expert. She is a professor at the University of Virginia School of Law. 

Additional Resources

Police Command v. Police Request – a brief legal explainer with Prof. Rachel Harmon exploring the legal difference between police orders and requests.

Police Commands & Police Coercion – an interview with Prof. Harmon exploring the legal limits and paradoxes of police commands. (2023)

Policing the Police – an interview with Prof. Harmon on the laws restraining police action and governing police accountability. (2022)

The Law of the Police –  Casebook exploring the complex array of federal, state, and local legal rules that govern police encounters with the public. (Aspen Publishing, 2021)