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It's Not 'Assault' if You Run Onto an NFL Field and Get Tackled

By Steven Ellison, Esq. on October 18, 2022 1:55 PM

Don't expect the law to support you if you do something stupid.

At least that's the lesson NFL linebacker Bobby Wagner will have taught a protester during Week 4's Monday Night Football game between the Rams and the 49ers at Levi's Stadium in San Francisco. In one of the better hits of the night, Wagner tackled the protester as he raced across the field holding a pink smoke bomb.

The protester responded by filing a police report claiming Wagner assaulted him. This is America, after all.

But America notwithstanding, this assault claim shouldn't fly.

What Happened?

Alex Taylor, an animal rights activist, is a member of the group Direct Action Everywhere. Taylor was protesting to draw attention to the trial of two of the group's members in Utah who have been accused of stealing pigs. Levi's Stadium security managed to prevent a second group member from taking the field, but Taylor was too fast for them.

Not too fast for an NFL linebacker, however. The hit Wagner put on Taylor which gave rise to the assault allegation has gone viral. According to Sports Illustrated, Taylor claims to have suffered a concussion, headaches, and a burn on his right bicep (though that may have been caused by his smoke bomb). The police are investigating Taylor's allegations. No charges have yet been brought.

Nor should they be. Wagner had a right to use force to restrain Taylor.

The Protester Was Trespassing on the Field

We'll start at the top. The protester had no legal right to be on the field. Assuming he purchased a ticket, he is subject to the terms and conditions of the ticket. His ticket gave him a license to be in the stadium for the duration of the game and to sit in a particular seat. But a ticket doesn't give you the right to be on the field itself.

So under the law, Taylor was trespassing. In California, trespassing is a crime. You commit this offense by entering or remaining on someone else's property without permission. In most instances, trespassing is charged as a misdemeanor. Potential penalties include jail for up to six months and a fine of $1,000.

Citizen's Arrests

California authorizes a private person to arrest another for a public offense committed in their presence. This kind of arrest is commonly known as a "citizen's arrest." Citizen's arrests may seem archaic, something you usually see in movies. They aren't common, but they aren't rare either.

California, like most states, prohibits police officers from arresting suspects for misdemeanors that are not committed in their presence. Sometimes the only person who can make a misdemeanor arrest is a citizen, such as a victim.

Under California law, an "arrest" is defined as taking someone into custody in a case and in a manner authorized by law. If you are a private person seeking to arrest someone legally, you need to establish "probable cause" to believe that the person committed a crime in your presence. You have probable cause if a reasonable person would believe that the suspect has committed, is committing, or is attempting to commit a crime.

Reasonable Use of Force

California courts recommend that citizens follow a particular procedure when effecting an arrest:

  • Inform the person that you intend to arrest them.
  • Specify the reason for the arrest (and, if possible, cite the law you believe they violated).
  • Make the arrest as soon as possible after you see the crime.

Although the use of force is discouraged, you may legally use "reasonable force" to arrest a suspect. What force is reasonable depends on the facts and circumstances of the case. If you use excessive force when arresting someone, you open yourself up to civil and criminal liability.

Wagner Legally Arrested The Protester

Let's sum up. The protester committed a crime in Wagner's presence by trespassing on the field. The linebacker, therefore, had a legal right to arrest the protester under California law. The only question is whether Wagner used reasonable force under the circumstances.

And to answer that, we can watch the video. As you will see, it's a clean body hit. Wagner tackles the protestor, security guards take him into custody, then Wagner walks away. No flags were thrown. The referee did not eject Wagner from the game. Note that the protester gets up moments later and walks off the field under his own power.

Wagner has a strong argument that his use of force was reasonable. Security couldn't catch the protester. No one knew what may have been in the smoke he was spreading all around the field. As Wagner pointed out, a security guard may have been hurt while chasing the protester. Under the circumstances, a reasonable person in Wagner's position could use the force he did to arrest the trespassing protester.

Americans Like to Sue

The protester's goal was to bring attention to his cause. He should leave it at that. We expect that any prosecutor who watches the video will conclude that Wagner conducted a lawful arrest and decline to charge the linebacker with assault.

If the protester wants to roll the dice and see if he can make any money off his newfound notoriety, he can try bringing a civil case. Good luck with that.

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