Citizen's Arrest

Arrests by private citizens are subject to fewer constitutional requirements than an arrest by law enforcement officers. But there are still rules that apply. Failure to abide by these rules can result in civil and criminal liability for the individual conducting the arrest.

In certain situations, a private person can make an arrest without a warrant. These "citizens' arrests" occur when ordinary people either detain criminals or direct police officers to detain a criminal. All states permit some form of citizen's arrest in their criminal procedures.


When Can a Private Citizen Arrest Someone?

States vary on citizen's arrest law and the types of crime for which a person can conduct a citizen's arrest. Generally, private citizens can arrest someone they reasonably suspect of committing a felony.

The felony doesn't have to occur in the presence of the individual making the arrest. They can still conduct a citizen's arrest if:

  • The individual making the arrest knew of the crime
  • Reasonable suspicion about the identity of the perpetrator will justify their arrest

Like a peace officer, you need probable cause to detain someone for a felony. However, if the alleged crime did not happen, the person making the arrest could become civilly and criminally liable. For example, you might face a lawsuit for wrongful arrest, use of force, or false imprisonment.

In general, people can't use a citizen's arrest for misdemeanor offenses unless the misdemeanor involves a breach of the peace. Even in these circumstances, however, individuals can only make arrests when:

  • The breach has just occurred
  • There's a strong likelihood the breach will continue

Some criminal cases might be easier to witness or show reasonable suspicion. Examples include those involving controlled substances or driving under the influence (DUI). However, the average citizen might not know the severity of whether the crime constitutes a felony or misdemeanor. So if you conduct a citizen's arrest, you do so at your own risk.

Constitutional Requirements for a Citizen's Arrest

A citizen's arrest doesn't carry the same constitutional requirements attached to an arrest by the police. But suppose a person acts at the request of law enforcement. In that case, any arrest must meet the same constitutional standards as the law enforcement officers in that case.

A citizen's arrest requested by law enforcement must comply with the Fourth Amendment search and seizure requirements. A citizen could also face prosecution under criminal law statutes that make it a crime to deprive someone of their constitutional rights without reasonable cause.

In common law, the use of citizens to aid authorities in apprehending criminals was necessary due to limited resources. In the early days before the founding of the United States and penal codes, citizens could detain a person who committed a public offense in their presence.

Use of Reasonable Force

Individuals must only use the amount of force that's reasonable and necessary to make the arrest. What constitutes a reasonable and necessary amount of force depends on the facts surrounding each arrest. Juries examine the totality of the circumstances to determine whether the force was excessive.

Some states prohibit the use of deadly force except when the person making the arrest or someone else is faced with the threat of serious bodily injury or immediate use of deadly physical force. People are allowed to use deadly force in such cases to prevent harm to themselves (self-defense) or others.

Other states allow a private individual making an arrest to use deadly force to stop a fleeing arrestee as long as the person making the arrest used reasonable methods to make the arrest and if such force is necessary to prevent certain felonies.

Criminal and Civil Liability

Excessive force can open the arresting individual to civil and criminal charges. This is an increased concern when individuals use deadly force to apprehend criminals. Any use of deadly force during a citizen's arrest that doesn't comply with the applicable state law could result in:

  • First or second-degree murder charges
  • Involuntary manslaughter charges against the arresting individual

A citizen's arrest can potentially expose individuals to other kinds of tort liability if the arrest wasn't justified.

In 2021, Georgia repealed its citizen arrest statute after Ahmaud Arbery was killed by neighbors who thought he had committed a burglary. A jury found that the men's use of deadly force was unjustified under the circumstances, and they were convicted on criminal charges.

Several states, such as Georgia and Minnesota, have specific statutes that allow merchants or their employees to briefly detain shoplifting suspects. But if a person doesn't comply with the law's requirements when making the arrest, the arrestee could allege several claims in a personal injury lawsuit, including:

  • False arrest
  • Assault
  • Battery

Learn More About Citizens' Arrests: Speak With a Criminal Defense Lawyer

Apprehending a criminal is inherently dangerous, but failure to meet the legal requirements for a citizen's arrest could have devastating legal consequences for the person making the arrest. Speak with an experienced criminal defense attorney near you to learn more and receive legal advice.

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