What Is a Citizen's Arrest?

By Teo Spengler - Updated April 23, 2018
Police car on the street

Everyone has seen a television show where an unassuming individual (though sometimes a superhero in disguise) tackles a wrongdoer and makes a citizen's arrest. Since few of us have actually done this, you may wonder whether this procedure is legal. The simple answer is: sometimes. Needless to say, state laws differ dramatically on when a citizen's arrest is justified.

Tip

A citizen's arrest is when a criminal is detained by a member of the public instead of a law enforcement officer.

The History of the Citizen's Arrest

Private individuals can, in certain situations, make an arrest. Citizen's arrests occur when ordinary people detain criminals who are caught in illegal acts.

The idea of citizen’s arrest started way back in medieval Britain. The law enforcement types at that time were few, and they asked and expected citizens to help maintain order and apprehend criminals. The British continued this tradition as they colonized regions around the world, since the colonizers didn't bring many formal police forces with them. The practice extended to the colonies in America, and, later, continued when those colonies became the United States.

Laws About Citizen's Arrest

Today it remains legal for a citizen to detain a criminal in most states. However, the circumstances in which a citizen's arrest can be made are defined by each state in its laws, and those laws differ. The amount of force you are permitted to use when making a citizen's arrest also varies among states. That means that if you want to stand ready to arrest a wrongdoer on the street, you need to acquaint yourself with your state laws on the subject. If you act outside or beyond those laws, you do so at your own risk, since you can be sued in civil court or even prosecuted for a crime if you act outside the limits of the law.

A typical citizen's arrest statute is that of California, where citizen's arrest is permitted by the California Penal Code section 837. It provides that a private person can arrest another for any crime if he sees the person committing the offense. He can also arrest someone for a felony, even if he doesn't see it happen, if a felony has in fact been committed and the citizen has reasonable cause to believe the person arrested committed it.

This means that, in California, you can arrest someone for a misdemeanor if you see it happen, but not if you don't, even if you have good reason to believe the person in front of you did commit a misdemeanor. A felony is a different story. Note that in other states, like Arkansas, you cannot arrest someone for a misdemeanor even if it happens right before your eyes. In these states, citizen's arrests can be made only for felonies. So what's a misdemeanor in your state, and what's a felony? If you don't know or aren't sure, you may want to limit your citizen's arrests to crimes that happen in front of you.

If you see a crime happening in front of you, how to proceed? Assess your risk, since it probably isn't worth getting assaulted when trying to be a good citizen. The odds are the person isn't going to go quietly. If you decide to go ahead, speak in a commanding voice and announce that the person is under citizen's arrest. Detain him, using only reasonable force. Call the police as soon as possible.

Can a Citizen Pull Over a Cop?

Under state laws, a citizen can arrest any person in certain circumstances. Most states do not carve out an exception for police officers, but in reality, this is very impractical and probably a bad idea. Police officers are likely to be armed and may actually be acting legitimately.

About the Author

Teo Spengler earned a J.D. from U.C. Berkeley's Boalt Hall. As an Assistant Attorney General in Juneau, she practiced before the Alaska Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court before opening a plaintiff's personal injury practice in San Francisco. She holds both an M.A. and an M.F.A in creative writing and enjoys writing legal blogs and articles. Spengler splits her time between the French Basque Country and Northern California.

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