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What is a Citizen's Arrest?

Citizen's may observe a crime scene until authorities can come and collect evidence.
Citizen's arrests were once common ways to hold shoplifters.
People involved in a fight might come under citizen's arrest until authorities arrive.
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  • Written By: Michael Pollick
  • Edited By: Niki Foster
  • Last Modified Date: 20 November 2014
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Despite what many people think, the concept of citizen's arrest is not to circumvent legitimate law enforcement or arbitrarily detain people without proof of a crime. Today, it exists as more of an emergency or stop-gap power granted to ordinary citizens at the behest of law enforcement officers.

Citizen's arrest means that a private citizen has the right to detain suspected criminals until proper law enforcement personnel can assume custody. The practice can be traced back to English common law during the Middle Ages, although each country or state can modify the rules of engagement. During the earliest days of modern justice systems, performing a citizen's arrest was a much more common practice. Merchants would routinely detain shoplifters and thieves caught in the act, often bringing them directly to a local constable's office for trial. As criminals became better armed and law enforcement became more readily available, the popularity of this type o arrest seemed to wane.

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Modern law enforcement officers strongly discourage untrained civilians from making a citizen's arrest. The risk of bodily injury or death is much too high, and the average response time of trained police officers is significantly faster. But under certain circumstances, such an arrest can provide enough time for the proper authorities to arrive. One of the main problems with a citizen's arrest, however, is the possibility of making a mistake. Unlike a failed attempt to resuscitate a victim through CPR, there is very little if any 'Good Samaritan' protection for private citizens who detain an innocent suspect.

One criteria for a legal citizen's arrest is the immediacy of the crime. The ideal circumstance is to catch the suspected criminal in the very act of committing a crime. A person witnessing a mugging can seize the mugger and hold him until a police officer arrives, for example.

Another scenario for a proper citizen's arrest would be a serious potential for a crime to be committed soon. If a person saw a masked man with a crowbar walking towards a vehicle, it can be reasonably assumed that a crime is about to take place. The witness can detain the masked man. This would still be true even if the 'crime' turned out to be a misunderstanding. If someone sees a man climbing through a broken window, he cannot be held responsible for false arrest if the man turns out to be the owner of the building who lost his keys.

Because the act of detaining an armed or physically powerful suspect can be extremely dangerous, police officers often suggest that citizens spend their time observing the suspect and the crime scene instead. If the witness can provide a physical description of the suspect or a license plate number, the police may be able to find the suspect themselves. The safer equivalent is a signed statement, with the intention of pressing criminal charges later. Sometimes, a police officer will ask a witness or victim to tell the suspect that he or she has been placed under citizen's arrest. This gives the police more legal authority to detain the suspect until he or she can be properly processed into the legal system.

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Discuss this Article

MrTideman
Post 20

Thanks for writing that: "Citizen's arrest means that a private citizen has the right to *detain* suspected criminals until proper law enforcement personnel can assume *custody...*" as in, to give a verbal instruction to the criminal to halt until the police arrive to either, as written here of: a signed statement, or that after the halt of the act, then for the police officer, being a "peace officer" to serve or "issue" an RSA Chapter 594:14 Summons to the criminal to appear in court on a certain day and time to have to answer to the criminal charge. --JSH

anon228820
Post 18

I'd say that you can convince several people not to leave the premises if you hold a gun on them, but the arriving officer may not see your actions the same way you do. I personally wouldn't hold a suspect under citizen's arrest with a gun unless I knew the police were aware of the true situation. Many officers are trained to draw their own weapons at the mere sight of a gun, so I'd say it may not be strictly illegal, but pretty inadvisable.

There's also the chance the weapon could be discharged accidentally, and your own legal rights could be at risk. Detaining someone with physical force until the police arrive is one thing, but holding them with the threat of gunfire is another. It's most likely going to work, but you may also be challenging an experienced criminal to call your bluff. Nothing could be much worse than being shot with your own weapon while waiting for trained help to arrive.

anon150343
Post 17

Can you make a citizens arrest with a weapon such as a firearm? for example, if there was a large amount of people doing an illegal act and could easily get away, could u pull a gun and tell them to get on the ground then call police and wait for them to arrive?

anon111290
Post 16

can a citizen use handcuffs to restrain the suspect he has arrested?

anon91964
Post 15

Can a citizens arrest be made for a person trying to hit you with their car and you are on a motorcycle?

anon91140
Post 14

can you citizen's arrest a person if he or she is attacking you in a fight or not?

anon34968
Post 13

why sensor police powers are no greater than yours or mine

anon34967
Post 12

you have a constitutional right to arrest but you will die from suicide by cop if you try to pierce the blue wall. Police don't live by same laws. Fear them

anon34715
Post 11

What about drinking, stagering to their car and gets in and starts to drive? Can you make an arrest and can you block them in or follow them then call the law or pull them over yourself?

umadaop2
Post 10

Can a citizen arrest a police officer or any law enforcement officer if they are committing a crime?

anon31042
Post 9

Cops can't arrest ppl for looking in car windows. Ppl cry out for freedom then turn around and complain about the police/gov't for 'infringing' on their rights.

Come on now. The police show up to help when nobody else can. Give 'em a break.

anon31020
Post 8

The types who would attempt to make a citizens arrest would need to be self-righteous. In San Francisco, two plain cloths officers witnessed a man looking into cars, then broke a window, and pulled out a back pack. Then they arrested him. The cops waited for a crime to happen. In any case, leave it to the cops!

takisv
Post 7

What are the 17 states that allow a private citizen to arrest for any public offense?

rebel1
Post 3

what is a persons responsibility once they have been put under citizens arrest?

FPollock
Post 1

The writer suggests a rule of citizen's arrest which I think is too broad. In most states, a private citizen may arrest without a warrant when a felony has been committed and the citizen has reasonable grounds to believe that the person arrested is the one who committed it. If sued, the citizen does not have to prove the guilt of the arrestee, but must prove that the felony suspected was in fact committed. In a handful of states, the citizen must prove that the party arrested actually committed the felony.

As for offenses less than a felony, about seventeen states allow a private ciitzen to arrest for any public offense committed in his presence. But to justify the arrest, the citizen must show that the person arrested actually committed or attempted to commit the offense.

The scenario with the crowbar presents a different situation. The citizen may be justified in intervening to prevent a felony he reasonably believes is about to be committed in his presence. Also, if he owns the property that is about to be burglarized, he may interfere to defend his property. In either case, he may act on appearances, and will not be liable simply because appearances differ from actualities. But to say that a citizen may always act on reasonable appearances is too broad.

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