You’re at the gas station when you see a masked man approach an elderly woman pumping gas. You see the man stick a gun to her back and demand her purse. Most Americans would rush to her aid, right? Maybe 50 years ago. But today, there are many accounts of people getting robbed or even murdered while many innocent bystanders look on, watching in horror (and some simply film it so they can post it to YouTube). Nobody does anything. The police should arrive in the next ten minutes, they all say.
But you assess the situation. He wouldn’t even hear you if you rushed him. And based on your knowledge of self-defense, you could easily disarm him. Can you legally arrest him? The answer is a resounding “Yes!” But . . . . (with law there’s always a “but”)
First, Some Background
For years, citizen’s arrest has been an effective tool to combat criminal activity. Originally rooted in common law, citizen’s arrest has been expanded and clarified by state statutes. (Note: Pretty much every state has their own law regarding citizen’s arrest – be sure to check it out. For example, you can simply Google, “Idaho law citizen’s arrest” or something like that.)
When To Make a Citizen’s Arrest
Even though the law varies state-by-state, there is a general, common theme of when to make a citizen’s arrest. A private citizen can arrest someone without a warrant if the wrongdoer fits into one of three categories:
- The wrongdoer committed a felony in the citizen’s presence (i.e., robbery, drug deal, murder, etc.);
- The wrongdoer committed a breach of the peace in the citizen’s presence (i.e., a moron who yells “fire!” in a movie theater); or
- Upon probable cause, the citizen knows that the wrongdoer had committed a felony in the past and has not been arrested (i.e., murderer on the run)
Besides the Above, Who Can You Arrest?
Many states have expanded on the above requirements, and citizens can make arrests for the following categories: (1) drunk drivers; (2) thieves; (3) trespassers; (4) scammers; and (5) buffoons who are engaging in disorderly conduct
How to Make a Citizen’s Arrest
Here are the basic steps:
- Make sure someone is attempting or committing a crime that involves or threatens bodily harm, damage or loss to property, or breach of the peace. Be certain! You can be arrested for making a false arrest, so you must have probable cause for arresting him.
- Assess whether you must use force to restrain the criminal
- Restrain/disable the criminal, using force that is only reasonable necessary to make the arrest
- Announce loudly in a firm, clear voice: “You’re under citizen’s arrest.” (Important: If the wrongdoer is committing a non-dangerous crime, you must announce the arrest before arresting him)
- Expect resistance from the criminal. Know how to keep him down.
- Yell for someone to call the police, or try to call them yourself
- Be prepared to go to court, maybe several times, to testify
Using Deadly Force
Most states prohibit the use of deadly force to arrest a wrongdoer unless the wrongdoer is dangerous and poses a serious threat to the citizen or others. There are lots of disparities in this area of law, but no matter what, if you shoot down the wrongdoer, you will likely find yourself in serious trouble.
Two Important Fine-Lines for When Not to Make an Arrest
Two fine-lines exist. Be sure to consider them before you make your decision. You can’t make a citizen’s arrest if:
- Police can make the arrest by virtue of their location or ability to respond to the crime in reasonable time. In other words, you can’t take down and arrest the bad guy because you think it’ll be fun while at the same time knowing that you could simply call the police
- The person already committed the crime, his identity is known, and he’s not trying to escape.
Common Question: Can Off-Duty Cops Arrest Someone Outside His Jurisdiction?
Say Officer Grimes is a police officer for the local sheriff’s department in Georgia. While visiting a relative in Alexandria, Virginia, he sees two guys get in a fist fight at a restaurant. Can he arrest them? Yes. Is he required to give the wrongdoer his Miranda rights? No. An off-duty police officer can arrest anyone outside his jurisdiction only if a private citizen is legally permitted to arrest that same person. In most states, however, a private citizen cannot arrest someone for committing a misdemeanor that is not a breach of the peace, and so that applies to that police officer as well.
Making Arrests on Government Property
Many states allow citizens to arrest someone for trespassing on government or quasi-government property. Examples:
- School grounds (vandalizing punks)
- Defense facility (spies)
- Utility premises (saboteurs)
The law of citizen’s arrest is the most significant aspect of the private citizen’s role in protecting public safety and order. As crimes become more complex, states are always revising their codes, so be sure to check your state law on citizen’s arrest! Remember, common wisdom is that you should attempt to make a citizen’s arrest only if the wrongdoer is committing a crime that is a danger to the public. Otherwise you could find yourself in liable for disturbance or personal injury.