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Jonathan Martin Tackles a Shoplifter: Citizen's Arrest Basics

By William Peacock, Esq. | Last updated on

NFL offensive lineman Jonathan Martin (who will unfortunately always be known as the guy who quit football temporarily after being bullied by a fellow teammate) is back in the news, but this time he wasn't a victim -- he was the man.

According to Yahoo Sports (and Martin's own tweets), Martin subdued an alleged shoplifter in a Versace store last week. Martin said that he saw the shoplifters and reacted without thinking -- pummeling one of them until he was sufficiently subdued to be taken care of by security.

Martin tweeted about the incident using the hashtag #civicduty, but what do you need to know about citizen's arrests before you exercise that duty?

Most jurisdictions allow citizens to make arrests. For example, under New York law, a citizen can arrest someone who has committed a felony (at any point). But for lesser offenses, including stealing that "Versace, Versace," a citizen can only make the arrest when he witnessed the crime and the arrest is made within the same county.

In short: If you see a minor crime occurring, you can read the situation and react like Martin did. And if it's a felony, you can pursue that person, even if you didn't see it happen.

But It May Not Be the Smartest Move...

Why could making a citizen's arrest not be the smartest move? We'll start with Martin's own after-the-fact comments: "I didn't even think," Martin told Yahoo Sports' Shutdown Corner blog. "I just reacted. It wasn't till later when [my friend] said, 'He could have had a gun.' I didn't even think about it. I just wanted to help."

Exactly. He could have a gun, or he could have been a PCP-addled nutjob wielding a butterfly knife.

And It's Legally Risky Too

Potential Issue No. 1: You have to use "reasonable" force. According to Martin, he punched the suspect repeatedly. Can you imagine being punched by a 300-pound NFL offensive lineman? Ouch. But Martin also said that he only punched him until he stopped moving.

See how that could quickly become an issue? Imagine being a hero, then being sued for excessive force or assault.

Potential Issue No. 2: Mistakes happen. Martin says that he saw the guy grab purses, but not every case is that clear. And a mistaken arrest could lead to additional legal trouble for bumbling vigilantes, like a lawsuit for false imprisonment, assault, or battery.

Is doing your #civicduty worth the legal and physical risks? That's your call. Perhaps leaving it to the professionals (and professional football players) is a better bet.

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