In an environment where word choice matters (news, journals etc) what would be recommended for each usage: Does being taken into custody lend its usage to the surrounding context to fit its roll or does it lean to one side, detain or arrest, more than the other?

I looked up in the dictionary:

Detain: (HOLD), apprehend, arrest, take into custody, put into custody, take(in), seize, confine, keep back, delay, jail, etc

(Take into) custody: put under arrest, apprehend, arrest, seize, , incarceration, remand, detention, etc

It also seems that both words have similar synonyms.

In an example I found in the paper:

A Kurdish journalist, Arin Sheikhums, 30, said he had visited three camps where Arab, Asian and European "war prisoners" were being held. He said he had seen as many as 100 women and children who had been taken into custody to be turned over to their home countries, including Russia, Indonesia, and Kazakhstan. In at least one of the camps, a large number of the prisoners were suspected fighters from Tunisia, a United States official said.

In this news article it feels like the women and children have been taken against their will and are going to be deported. In this case it feels less like arrest and more like detaining.

If it were an article about people commiting crimes and being arrested would the criminals have been taken into custody be synonymous with arrested or synonymous with detained? Or would this, in this case, be used when someone might become arrested but because of lacking information said person is being detained.

  • 2
    'Be detained' is often used for 'be delayed' in a non-custodial sense; 'be taken into custody' has a far narrower sense. Jan 28, 2018 at 8:12
  • 3
    'Detain' in the UK usually refers only to being questioned on the street. There are dozens of Youtube videos where people resist this by saying repeatedly 'am I being detained ?' forcing Police to let them go on their way or to arrest with definite suspicion. 'Detain' is very weak and sometimes questionable as to lawfulness.
    – Nigel J
    Jan 28, 2018 at 8:37
  • 1
    First off, "detained" has many uses that have nothing to do with law enforcement. Next, what one cop shop calls "detained" another might call "in custody" -- it depends on the spin they want to put on it.
    – Hot Licks
    Feb 8, 2018 at 3:40
  • One is arrested and then detained ... sometimes unavoidably. Feb 25, 2018 at 2:33
  • 2
    So far as the ordinary meanings of these terms are concerned, the difference between them is very imprecise, as the dictionary definitions show. Within a particular legal system these terms may, however, have precise, technical senses. What these meanings are, is a legal question that can only be answered within the context of a particular legal system.
    – jsw29
    Mar 10, 2018 at 19:57

1 Answer 1


Though the two terms can be analagous, being detained, as illustrated in your examples, is less formal and does not necessarily indicate you are under arrest or will be taken into custody.

It is used as a way to protect your 5th ammendment rights, some recommend asking if you are being detained or if you are free to go when stopped by the police.

If the officer says you are not under arrest, but you are not free to go, then you are being detained.


In the news there has been quite a bit of scrutiny over the military detaining prisoners without due process during the so called "War on Terror". The difference in this case is that while the individuals have been taken into custody, for long periods of time, they are technically not under arrest, and in many instances have not been charged with a crime but are instead being detained indefinately.

The detentions at Guantanamo Bay have given rise to at least three major concerns. First, the United States made the alarming decision that the detainees are beyond the reach of any authority other than their military. Based on this conclusion, the military originally denied the detainees even the most basic rights, including prisoner-of-war status, access to the courts and to attorneys, and contact with their families.


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