Are Citizens Arrests Legal?
- Are Citizens Arrests Legal?
- Introductions to Citizen’s Arrest
- What is a citizen’s arrest?
- What are the limitations and risks of a citizen’s arrest?
- How to make a citizen’s arrest
- Citizen’s Arrest Laws by State
- New Hampshire
- New Jersey
- New Mexico
- New York
- North Carolina
- North Dakota
- Rhode Island
- South Carolina
- South Dakota
- West Virginia
- Examples of Successful Citizen’s arrests
The concept of a citizen’s arrest is not new, but it’s one that’s often misunderstood. In certain situations, an individual has the right to detain someone they believe has committed a crime. However, this right is not unlimited. Before taking action, it’s important to understand the laws that govern citizen’s arrests, as well as the potential risks involved.
In this post, we’ll explore the ins and outs of citizen’s arrests, including when they are legal, what crimes can be addressed through this method, and the potential legal and physical consequences of taking matters into your own hands. Whether you’re a concerned citizen or a business owner looking to protect your property, this post will provide you with the knowledge you need to make informed decisions about how to handle situations that require intervention.
Introductions to Citizen’s Arrest
Citizen’s arrest is a term that we have all heard of but may not fully understand. In simple terms, it is the process of apprehending a person by a private citizen who has witnessed a crime being committed. The idea behind citizen’s arrest is that if a police officer is not present, then any individual can act in the interest of justice and arrest the offender. However, there are certain parameters that need to be met before a citizen can take action and make an arrest.
Firstly, the citizen must have witnessed the crime being committed. They cannot make an arrest based on hearsay or suspicion alone. Additionally, the crime must be a serious offense, such as a felony or a breach of peace. A citizen cannot make an arrest for a minor offense such as jaywalking or littering.
Furthermore, the citizen must act within reason and without the use of excessive force. In other words, they cannot use more force than is necessary to make the arrest. If excessive force is used, the citizen may be subject to criminal charges themselves.
It’s important to note that while citizen’s arrest is legal in many jurisdictions, the laws surrounding it can vary from state to state and country to country. It’s crucial to understand your local laws and regulations before taking any action.
What is a citizen’s arrest?
A citizen’s arrest occurs when a private individual apprehends another individual whom they believe has committed a crime. In other words, it’s a legal way for an ordinary person to detain someone who appears to have broken the law. The concept of citizen’s arrest dates back centuries, and it is still a recognized practice in many jurisdictions around the world.
When can a citizen make an arrest?
Citizen’s arrest is a serious matter and should only be undertaken in certain circumstances. In general, a citizen can make an arrest if they witness a crime being committed or have reasonable grounds to suspect that a crime has been committed. This could include cases of theft, assault, or vandalism, as examples.
Citizens can only make an arrest if the suspect is in the act of committing a crime or if the citizen has reasonable grounds to believe that the suspect is about to commit a crime. The use of force must be proportionate to the situation and should only be used as a last resort.
Citizens are not allowed to conduct searches or seize property. If a citizen believes that evidence needs to be collected, they should contact the police immediately.
Be aware of the potential legal consequences of making an arrest. If the arrest is not lawful, the citizen could be liable for charges such as assault, false imprisonment, or kidnapping. Therefore, it’s important to have a clear understanding of the law and to only take action when it is safe and appropriate to do so.
What are the limitations and risks of a citizen’s arrest?
While a citizen’s arrest can be used in certain situations, there are limitations and risks that come with it. First, it’s important to understand that only certain crimes allow for a citizen’s arrest, such as a felony that is witnessed in progress or a breach of the peace. Additionally, the use of force must be reasonable and necessary, and cannot exceed what is needed to make the arrest.
One major risk of a citizen’s arrest is the potential for the person making the arrest to be sued for false arrest, assault, or other civil charges. This is why it’s important to have a clear understanding of the law and the situation before taking action. It’s also important to note that if the person being arrested is injured in the process, the person making the arrest could face criminal charges.
What are the legal consequences of a citizen’s arrest?
The laws surrounding citizens arrest can vary depending on the state or country in which you are located. However, in general, a citizen’s arrest must be made with probable cause and reasonable force must be used to detain the individual until law enforcement arrives.
If you make a citizen’s arrest without probable cause or use excessive force, you could be facing charges of false imprisonment, assault, or even kidnapping. It’s important to only make a citizen’s arrest if you are sure that a crime has been committed and that the individual in question is the perpetrator.
How to make a citizen’s arrest
Making a citizen’s arrest can be a risky situation, so it is important to know how to do it safely and efficiently. First and foremost, you should always prioritize your own safety and well-being. If you feel that you are in danger or that the situation could escalate quickly, it may be best to leave the situation and call for professional help instead.
Clear and rational reason
If you do decide to make a citizen’s arrest, ensure that you have a clear and rational reason for doing so. You should also make sure that you have witnessed the crime taking place, or have clear evidence that a crime has been committed.
Approaching the suspect
When approaching the suspect, be clear and firm in your instructions, while also remaining calm and avoiding any physical altercations. It is important to remember that you are not a police officer, and should not use excessive force or violence.
What to do after making a citizen’s arrest?
Ensure that the person you have arrested is secure and cannot escape. This may involve restraining them, but it is important to do so in a way that does not cause harm or injury. If you are unsure how to restrain someone safely, it may be better to wait for law enforcement to arrive.
Once the person is secure, contact the police immediately and provide them with all of the details of the arrest, including the individual’s name and any evidence you may have collected. It is important to remember that you are not a law enforcement officer, and should not attempt to interrogate or question the individual any further.
Be prepared to give a statement to the police and potentially testify in court if necessary. It is important to provide an accurate and detailed account of the events leading up to and following the citizen’s arrest.
Citizen’s Arrest Laws by State
This list is a database of citizen’s arrest statutes and rules to aid anyone in making the right legal decisions before attempting a citizen’s arrest. It should not be construed as legal advice, and before taking action you may want to contact an attorney or other certified legal adviser.
Many government databases simply do not provide a way to link to the actual statute. When this happens, and an outside source cannot be found, we will note “search for” and the statute number to look for.
FELONY REQUIRED and variations indicate a state citizen’s arrest statute that specifically requires a felony to be committed before a citizen can take action, ruling out most arrests of elected officials. The lack of this indicator does NOT mean that a felony is not required, only that it is not clear whether the simple commission of a crime, a misdemeanor, or a felony is required. Please check the linked statutes before taking any action.
- Connecticut (Official Source, search for Section 54-170)
- Connecticut (More Information from Public Defender)
We could not find the code for citizens arrest in Maryland statutes, but there is a UMD article and a MD Attorney General opinion that come to the same conclusion on the current law as of 2005 in Maryland.
- FELONY REQUIRED
- Massachusetts (Commonwealth v. Harris, look at page 170)*
- Massachusetts (Commonwealth v. Grise, look at page 250)
We could not find the code for citizens arrest in Massachusetts general laws, but the two court cases above conclude that a felony is required.
- FELONY REQUIRED
- Michigan (Official Source)
- Minnesota (Official Source)
- Minnesota (Official Source 2)
- Minnesota (Citizens Arrest Form Sample by Maplewood Police Department, look on page 4.)
- Missouri (Attorney General opinion 1970)*
- Missouri (Official Source, citizen use of force during arrest)
We could not find the official citizen’s arrest statute in Missouri, but we found an AG opinion that seems to point to any felony or any misdemeanor which is either a breach of the peace or larceny, and Missouri statutes on the use of force when making a citizen’s arrest that clearly state “has committed an offense, and who in fact has committed such offense” and does not limit the offense to a simple felony.
- FELONY OR LARCENY REQUIRED
- Nebraska (Official Source)
- FELONY REQUIRED
- New Hampshire (Official Source, citizen use of force during an arrest, search for 627.5)*
We could not find the official citizen’s arrest statute in New Hampshire, but state statutes on the use of force make it clear that “reasonably believes to have committed a felony and who in fact has committed that felony” is a requirement. Therefore, until we can find more information, it is listed as FELONY REQUIRED.
North Carolina law only allows citizens to detain, not arrest, offenders. The legal difference is murky, but make sure not to say the words “citizen’s arrest” when you are detaining another person in North Carolina, as it is specifically prohibited by state statute. North Carolina is also the only state to allow any person to get a warrant for arrest based upon probable cause and oath or affirmation, providing another avenue to bring corrupt officials to justice.
- FELONY REQUIRED
- Ohio (Official Source)
We could not find the official citizens arrest law for Pennsylvania. The closest we found was 18-508, referring to the correct use of force during a citizen’s arrest. Since there is a statute that lays out the proper use of force during an arrest, the implication would be that citizen’s arrests can be made in Pennsylvania. However, the statute gives no guidance as to the grounds for that arrest. UPDATE: We reached out to the Pennsylvania Legislative Reference Bureau, and they sent us a law review document that asserts the common law precedence that a private person can arrest another only if they have either committed a felony or a misdemeanor breach of the peace.
- FELONY OR LARCENY REQUIRED
- South Carolina (Official Source, search for SECTION 17-13-10)
- Vermont (Official Source Unavailable)*
We could not find the official citizen’s arrest statute in Vermont. 13-59-4954 lays out the grounds for a citizens arrest on someone charged with a crime in another state, who would need to be extradited, but we cannot find any statutes related to citizens warrantless arrest of individuals outside that category.
We could not find an official Washington citizen’s arrest statute. We called their legislative information center, and their law library, and both informed us that the statute does not exist. A 2005 report from the Department of Licensing confirms this. However, the law librarian and the report note that case law protects citizens arrests in the state. In State v. Gonzales and Guijosa v. Walmart Stores the Washington Court of Appeals opined that a person could arrest another person within the state for a misdemeanor that equaled a breach of the peace and was committed in the citizen’s presence. A person can also arrest for felonies, according to State v. Malone, State v. Miller, and State v. Gonzales. In addition, there is a WA Attorney General’s 1957 opinion on citizen’s arrest here.
- West Virginia (Official Source Unavailable)
- *We could not find any official citizens arrest statute in West Virginia.
We could not find any citizens arrest statute in Wisconsin. A Wisconsin Attorney General’s report from 2008 states, firstly, that citizen’s arrests in Wisconsin are governed by common law, and secondly, that “a citizen can make a felony arrest without a warrant based on probable cause but can make a warrantless arrest for a misdemeanor only if the misdemeanor is committed in the citizen’s presence and constitutes a breach of the peace.”
- FELONY, THEFT, or PROPERTY DESTRUCTION REQUIRED
- Wyoming (Source 1)
- Wyoming (Official Source, search for S. 7-8-101)
“Source ____” means the link goes to the language of the statute, but not from an official government site. We include these because government databases can be very difficult to link correctly, and these external sites can provide an easier-to-find reference. These may not keep up with the official source, and may be inaccurate.”Judicial Rules” means the linked item is not a statute, but rules of the judiciary. “Official Source ____” is the statute from an official, .gov website or Lexis Nexis database and will be accurate. “More information from _____” indicates useful information for someone looking to make a citizen’s arrest in that state. “Attorney General’s opinion” are opinions from the state’s attorney general that in some way either lay out the grounds for a citizens arrest, or the type of offense required for a citizen’s arrest to be legal.
Examples of Successful Citizen’s arrests
While citizen’s arrests are not common, there have been successful examples of them in the past. In 2018, a group of citizens in Toronto, Canada, made a citizen’s arrest of a man who attempted to steal a bicycle. The group held the man until police arrived and he was subsequently charged with theft. In the same year, a man in the United Kingdom made a citizen’s arrest of a burglar who had broken into his neighbor’s home. The burglar was held until police arrived and was ultimately convicted of burglary.
However, it’s important to note that citizen’s arrests come with risks and it’s important to take caution before taking action. In 2013, a man in the United States made a citizen’s arrest of a suspected drunk driver. The man was later sued by the driver for false imprisonment and assault. Similarly, in 2019, a man in Canada was charged with assault after making a citizen’s arrest of a suspected shoplifter.
These examples highlight the importance of understanding the laws and risks associated with citizens’ arrests before taking action. It’s always recommended to contact law enforcement in the event of a crime instead of taking matters into your own hands.