Criminal Law: Citizens’ Arrests

All states currently authorize private citizens (non-police officers) to make arrests if the situation warrants such action. Although citizens’ arrests are not common, they do happen, and often they result in the capture of a criminal. Although private citizens should exercise caution when making citizens’ arrests, they are authorized to do so if the following circumstances are present:

1) They personally observe the commission of a crime;
2) They have knowledge that the person has committed a felony; or
3) They have probable cause that the person has committed a felony.

Citizens’ Arrests: Civil Liability

The general rule of thumb is that private citizens should not attempt to make a citizens’ arrest unless they are absolutely certain that a crime has been committed, and that law enforcement can later prove that the crime was committed. If the private citizen is later found to have made a false citizens’ arrest, he or she could be civilly liable to the detainee for monetary damages. Courts do not look favorably on vigilantes who make regular citizens’ arrests, or private citizens who make arrests based on no real knowledge of a crime.

Citizens’ Arrests: Safety

Let’s say that you own a small convenience store in a bad part of town, and a man comes into your store and attempts to rob you of the money in the cash register. At that point, you know that the man has committed a felony, and you have the right to make a citizens’ arrest. The question, however, is not of legal authority, but of safety.

If the man has a gun, then you could be shot, and even if he isn’t armed, you could be injured or killed in the struggle. The only time that a citizens’ arrest is advisable is when there is no danger of personal harm. If you fear that you may be killed in an attempt to make a citizens’ arrest, the best thing to do is to get to safety and to call the police.

Citizens’ Arrests: Deadly Force

Self defense is one thing, but the use of deadly force during a citizens’ arrest could be a terrible error in judgment. Private citizens are not authorized to use deadly force when trying to make a citizens’ arrest, and unless you can prove that the use of deadly force was in response to a threat to your life or to the lives of others, you could be both civilly and criminally liable for that force.

Remember that police officers are authorized to use deadly force when necessary, but that private citizens are not.

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