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How to Make a Citizen's Arrest

By Aditi Mukherji, JD | Last updated on

Have you ever wondered how to make a citizen's arrest? In certain situations, ordinary folks are allowed to legally detain criminals until sworn law-enforcement agents arrive. Think of it as a "do-it-yourself" arrest.

But before you go all vigilante on your sketchy neighbors, remember that there are certain legal hoops you must jump through before you can make a citizen's arrest.

Here's what you have to do to make a lawful citizen's arrest:

1. Assess the Situation.

To arrest someone for a felony, you need probable cause, which means you will have to show "a reasonable belief" that the person has committed a felony. You don't need to actually see the crime occur.

Typically, to arrest someone for a misdemeanor or infraction, you must witness a "breach of the peace." You also need to identify:

Even if you reasonably believe that a felony occurred, if the crime didn't actually happen, you could become civilly and criminally liable -- so think twice before making a citizen's arrest if you're unsure about what you saw.

2. Express Your Intent to Arrest and Explain Why.

In most states, you must sufficiently convey to the suspect that you intend to put the person under arrest. You also need to explain to the suspect why you're arresting him or her (to meet the probable cause requirement).

3. Apprehend the Suspect With Minimum Force.

The force you apply to detain the suspect must be "reasonable," which is a tricky (and risky) standard because it's so subjective and vague. The force used in the arrest must be necessary and justified by the alleged criminal's acts.

4. Call the Police.

To avoid potential excessive force or false imprisonment charges, make sure to call law-enforcement professionals as soon as you detain the suspect. Try to not tie or handcuff the suspect to anything. Wait with the suspect until the police arrives to transfer custody.

Remember, private citizens are held strictly liable when they attempt to make a citizen's arrest. So if you fail to meet any of the conditions above, you could face both criminal and civil charges.

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