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When Can You Conduct a Citizen's Arrest?

By Stephanie Rabiner, Esq. | Updated by Melissa Bender, Esq. | Last updated on

There may come a point in your life during which you're walking down the street and witness a crime. Or maybe you see someone shoplifting in a store. You may or may not consider stepping in and conducting a citizen's arrest.

It's okay if you choose not to — it is, after all, a risky move.

But what if you want to initiate a citizen's arrest as a private citizen or peace officer (like a bouncer at a bar or a security guard at a store)? In which situations would it be okay?

The important thing to remember about a citizen's arrest is that, though you are not a law enforcement officer nor are you bound by strict Constitutional limitations, you may not step in whenever you feel like it. You must have probable cause that a criminal offense has occurred or is continuing to occur right in front of you.

Most states and Canada have a version of a citizen’s arrest law. Typically these laws only allow someone to make a lawful citizen's arrest in the following two situations:

  • If a felony has been committed and you reasonably believe that the arrestee committed the crime.
  • If the crime involves a breach of the peace, and you witnessed the behavior and the breach has just occurred or is likely to continue.

Even so, you may only utilize reasonable force, which means the amount of force necessary to make the arrest possible and not excessive force for the circumstances. Additionally, some states do not permit the use of deadly force by a private citizen when making a citizen's arrest.

You should use caution because an improper citizen's arrest opens you up to both civil and criminal liability because you are a private person. An example of this is the case of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia. In that case, 3 men were charged with murder and claimed they were conducting a citizen’s arrest of Mr. Arbery for burglary at the time he died. All 3 defendants were convicted.

Conducting an improper arrest or using improper force can lead to civil liability for things like false imprisonment, assault, battery, and wrongful death. You may also have criminal charges filed against you for things like assault, battery, and false arrest especially if bodily harm happens during the arrest.

In other words, you can conduct a citizen's arrest, but you should seriously consider the risks first. It may make more sense to instead call your local police department and let a police officer who is more familiar with your state’s criminal laws take care of the issue.

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