Citizen’s Arrest Law

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 What Is a Citizen's Arrest?

A citizen’s arrest occurs when an ordinary citizen stops and arrests a person they suspect of committing a crime. They may make the arrest or tell a police officer to make the arrest. Usually, if the police are not present, a person would detain the person only until the police can report to the scene to make an official arrest based on probable cause.

A citizen can only make an arrest if a felony crime was actually committed and the person who makes the arrest knows of the crime. In addition, the person who makes the arrest must have a reasonable suspicion regarding the identity of the perpetrator, i.e., the person they arrest, to justify the arrest.

In other words, the person who plans to make an arrest must know of the felony crime that was committed. They must also have a reasonable suspicion that the person they arrest committed the crime. Again, if the crime did not, in fact, take place, the person who makes an arrest might find themselves facing a civil lawsuit for false imprisonment.

In addition, the crime must be one for which state law allows citizen’s arrest. Generally, states require that the crime is a felony criminal offense and not a misdemeanor. The law of citizen’s arrests allows a private citizen to make an arrest for a felony offense without a warrant by detaining suspects themselves and then calling the police to arrest the suspect.

Citizen’s arrests are subject to less stringent constitutional requirements than are arrests by law enforcement because such an arrest is not a state action. However, there are still certain rules that private citizens must follow when making a citizen’s arrest.

What Are the Requirements for Making a Citizen’s Arrest?

There are requirements for making a citizen’s arrest, and if the person making the arrest does not respect them, they subject themselves to both civil and criminal liability. The requirements for making a citizen’s arrest are as follows:

  • The person must have witnessed the crime taking place;
  • The person must have a reasonable belief that the person they arrest has committed the crime they witnessed;
  • The crime witnessed must be one for which the law of the state in which the arrest is made allows a citizen’s arrest, usually a felony;
  • The person must decide whether it is safe to make the arrest and proceed if it is safe;
  • The person must fully understand the circumstances and the responsibility they bear in making the arrest.

Again, if it turns out that the private citizen did not have probable cause or reasonable grounds to make the arrest, the person could be sued for false imprisonment, assault and battery, or some other claim for damages. The person may also face criminal charges, which is why it is highly recommended that a person fully understand the risks and requirements for making a citizen’s arrest.

In the final analysis, It might be a better idea for a person to just call the police if they witness a crime in progress.

What if the Crime That Has Been Committed Is Not a Felony?

To legally make a citizen’s arrest, a person generally must have a reasonable suspicion that the suspected perpetrator committed a felony. So, a person really should not make a citizen’s arrest for a mere traffic offense, violation of an ordinance, or even a misdemeanor crime, e.g., simple assault.

There is one exception: A person can make a citizen’s arrest for a misdemeanor if the misdemeanor is a breach of the peace. In this situation, a person must have witnessed the crime, the crime must have just occurred, or there must be reason to believe that the crime will continue.

Unfortunately, the crime of breaching the peace is defined differently in different states. Generally, it is a crime that involves violating the public peace or order. A number of different crimes can be considered as violations of the public peace.

The crime is considered synonymous with disorderly conduct. Because the terminology is just too unspecific, some states have laws that provide specific descriptions of a “breach of the peace” offense. Some examples are as follows:

  • In Nebraska, a person who intentionally disturbs the peace and quiet of the community can be charged with a Class III misdemeanor;
  • In Wyoming, playing unreasonably loud music, using threatening language, or taking violent actions are breaches of the peace. The actions must be taken with the reasonable knowledge that they could disturb the peace;
  • In Vermont, a person breaches the peace when they make too much noise between sunset and sunrise, assault another person, use telephonic communication to harass another person, and other similar actions.

If a person wants to make a citizen’s arrest of a person for committing the crime of disorderly conduct or breach of the peace, they would have to be familiar with the definition of that crime in their state and confident that the suspect they plan to arrest has engaged in actions that constitute that specific offense.

What Are the Limitations of Citizen’s Arrest?

A citizen may only use deadly force when detaining a suspect if the arresting citizen or witnesses have been put in immediate physical danger by the suspect. Each state has different requirements for the use of deadly force. However, in general, deadly force can only be used if a fatal occurrence would happen without it. Citizens can use force to detain the suspect, but it can only be enough force to subdue the suspect until a law enforcement official arrests them.

If a citizen were to use deadly force that results in a fatality while making an arrest and it is later found that the use of force was not justified, the citizen might be named as a defendant in a wrongful death lawsuit.

Furthermore, law enforcement must agree with the citizen that a felony has occurred before they would file any charges against the alleged criminal. If the suspect is not found guilty of committing a felony, again, this could put the arresting citizen at risk of being named in a civil lawsuit.

Citizens’ arrests are not subject to exactly the same constitutional restrictions as are arrests by law enforcement. However, citizens are more at risk in that they can be civilly or criminally liable if their arrest is not fully justified.

Are There Any Consequences of Citizen’s Arrest?

If a citizen makes an improper arrest, the suspect may have a right to bring a civil lawsuit against the citizen. Most state laws recognize the civil wrong of false imprisonment, which allows someone to sue for their mental distress if they are unjustifiably held against their will.

The citizen may also face criminal charges for unlawful restraint if the arrest is unjustified.

Again, the use of excessive force in making the citizen’s arrest may lead to criminal or civil charges. Also, if the arresting citizen uses deadly force that leads to a fatality, they may face manslaughter or even murder charges.

Do I Need a Lawyer for My Citizen’s Arrest Issue?

If you have been charged with a crime as a result of making a citizen’s arrest, you want to consult a criminal defense lawyer. can connect you to a qualified criminal defense lawyer who can protect your rights and help you justify any arrest you may have made.

If you have been named as a defendant in a civil lawsuit because you made a citizen’s arrest, you want to consult a personal injury lawyer. Again, can connect you to an experienced lawyer who can help you fight off liability for a well-intended citizen’s arrest.

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