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If the cops tell you not to leave town, do you have to stay?

Answer: No. We've all watched police crime dramas in which a suspect is questioned by the police, then told, "Don't leave town" even though he's not under arrest. Have you ever wondered whether you are legally compelled to stay in town if no charges have been filed? Is it obstruction of justice if you decide to visit your grandmother over the weekend?

Your rights while under investigation

First, let's clear up the question about whether the police can legally compel someone to remain in the local jurisdiction while an investigation is underway: No, the police have no legal right to restrict you to your house, town, state or even country of legal residence unless you have been charged and arraigned.

If you have not been placed under arrest nor formally charged, you continue to enjoy all the rights of a free resident of the United States. Of course, you must obey the terms of probation or parole you may already be under for a prior offense.

Even if you have been issued a subpoena to appear in court, you have the right to free travel, as long as you report at the location, date and time stated on the subpoena.

But is it prudent to leave town if the police warn you not to?

In Hollywood, warning a suspect not to leave town is a shorthand way of reminding the person that he is under close watch as a person of interest for the crime. If you are ever questioned by a police officer and hear that phrase, it is best to hire an experienced criminal defense lawyer immediately, because the police have already taken one step toward violating your rights.

While it may be true that you have every right to move about the country as you please while under investigation, it may not be your best option to do so, however. As you might expect, if the police have to track you down in another city or state, the first question is going to be why you went "on the lam."

Anytime you become part of a state or federal criminal investigation, seek the protection of an attorney as soon as possible. In many cases, it may be your own lawyer who tells you not to leave town, even if the police don't.

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