From Arrest to Charge in 48 Hours

Complex terrorism cases in the US since 9/11

Executive Summary

  • Under the Fourth Amendment of the US Bill of Rights, the maximum period of pre-charge detention in criminal cases is 48 hours.
  • Despite the US government’s resort to a wide range of exceptional measures since 9/11, including the use of indefinite detention in Guantanamo Bay, warrantless wiretapping, extraordinary rendition, and so-called ‘enhanced interrogation’ techniques, this core constitutional guarantee has remained unchanged.
  • This report details ten of the most high-profile terrorism cases since 9/11 in which the FBI, together with state and local police, arrested over 50 suspects in alleged plots aimed at causing widespread loss of life, including the destruction of such key US landmarks as the Sears Tower and the Brooklyn Bridge.
  • Details from each case show that police in the US encounter identical difficulties investigating terrorism cases as police in the UK do. These include the declared intention of terrorist groups to cause mass casualties with no warning; the pressure upon law enforcement to intervene early to protect the public; the increasing amount of material seized for the purposes of investigations; and the presence of international links.
  • Nonetheless, in all ten alleged terror plots between 2002 and 2007, each suspect was charged with a criminal offence within 48 hours of their arrest.
  • Indeed, in a majority of cases, suspects were charged prior to being arrested due to the use of indictments by federal grand juries (abolished in England and Wales in 1933).
  • The key difference between UK and US terrorism investigations appears to be the constitutional guarantee of due process in the latter and the extensive reliance by its police and prosecutors upon intercept evidence in prosecuting suspected terrorists.
  • No western democracy faces a greater threat of terrorism than the US. Despite this, the proven ability of US law enforcement to charge suspects in complex terror plots within 48 hours of arrest without resort to exceptional measures shows that UK proposals to extend pre-charge detention are both unjustified and unnecessary.


Eric Metcalfe


1 November 2007

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