We count on police officers to watch for criminals and keep us safe, but under certain circumstances, private citizens may also detain criminals. In Tennessee, you can only make a citizen's arrest under certain circumstances -- and the law limits the use of force. If you make an illegal arrest or use unreasonable force, you can be held liable for your actions.
Grounds for a Citizen's Arrest
In Tennessee, the law allows a private citizen to make an arrest if someone breaks a law in his presence. If you do not actually see a person breaking the law, you may only make an arrest if someone commits a felony -- and you have "reasonable cause" to believe that he committed the felony. Felonies are serious crimes, such as murder, possession of most illegal drugs and theft of property worth at least $500, punishable by a year or more in prison. The same rules that apply to private citizens apply to security officers, who may arrest shoplifters at a store.
Read More: What Is a Citizen's Arrest?
Procedure for Arrest
Before making the arrest, Tennessee law requires that private citizens provide notice of the grounds for the arrest, or inform an individual of the law that you believe he broke. Without delay, you must either bring the person you arrested to a magistrate, or to a police officer, who may bring the suspect to the magistrate. You can find a magistrate at the courthouse in your county. A magistrate is often available 24 hours a day -- and determines whether or not to take the individual into custody.
Use of Force
Private citizens are permitted to use force in the process of an arrest, but only to the extent that it is necessary because the individual is attempting to flee or otherwise resist. You are generally also allowed to use handcuffs or other restraining devices when you believe that the suspect will flee. However, you can only use deadly force in self-defense or if you are defending someone else. If you use more force than is necessary, you may be personally liable for your actions, which may mean that the suspect could press criminal charges or sue you in court.
Searching the Suspect
While the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution prohibits police officers from performing illegal searches and seizures, these rules do not apply to private citizens. Tennessee law does not specifically prohibit private citizens or security guards from searching an individual during an arrest. However, if the individual didn't actually commit a crime, you may be held liable for an illegal search, so it is best to proceed cautiously before searching a suspect.
Result of a Private Arrest
If you bring the suspect to a police officer, it is up to the officer to decide whether or not to bring the suspect to the magistrate, based on whether the officer has reasonable cause to believe that the suspect committed the crime. If the officer decides not to bring the suspect to the magistrate, you still have the option to do so yourself. Once the suspect is brought to the magistrate, the magistrate determines if there is probable cause to believe that he committed an offense. If you bring the suspect to the magistrate yourself, you must file an affidavit of complaint. Based on the complaint, if the magistrate determines that there is probable cause, he then issues an arrest warrant.
- State of Tennessee Office of the Attorney General: Licensed Security Officers and Citizen Arrests
- Justia: 40-7-109. Arrest by private person Grounds
- Justia: 40-7-113. Disposition of person arrested by private person
- State of Tennessee Office of the Attorney General: Effect of criminal summons statute on private citizen arrests
- University of Tennessee: An Overview of Criminal Offenses under Tennessee Law
- Williamson County: Magistrates
Elizabeth Rayne earned her J.D. from Penn State University and has been practicing law since 2009, advising clients on issues ranging from employment law to nonprofit management. For two years, she served as a contributing editor for the "Vermont Environmental Monitor."