Making a citizen’s arrest might sound like something out of fiction or folklore, like the Road Runner in pursuit of Wile E. Coyote, but it is indeed a perfectly legal option under some circumstances. State laws and rules can differ, but making a citizen's arrest basically means that a private citizen detains and effectively “arrests” an individual who has broken the law, even if that private citizen doesn't have a warrant.
In fact, the New Jersey Supreme Court juror instructions specifically include provisions for this type of event. Be warned, however: a New Jersey citizen who doesn’t follow the exact rules for the procedure can be sued by the alleged criminal or charged with false arrest.
This can also result if it’s later found that no crime actually occurred. Merely suspecting that a crime was committed won't do.
Who Can Make a Citizen’s Arrest in New Jersey?
The first citizen’s arrest rules apply to the individual who apprehends and detains an alleged criminal, but these aren’t particularly exacting. Any citizen of the state can act under certain circumstances, although the New Jersey legislative code does give a specific nod of approval to citizens who work in two professions: merchants and licensed casino employees.
Merchants must have probable cause to believe that the individual in question has shoplifted, and that they can reclaim the stolen merchandise by making a citizen’s arrest. Casino employees must have probable cause to believe that the individual has cheated or used certain illegal devices to play a game of chance, including fake chips or marked cards. Card counting is not an arrestable offense, however.
Additionally, a Superior Court or municipal court judge can authorize a private citizen to execute a warrant, temporarily granting that citizen all the same powers as a constable to immediately arrest someone who is considered dangerous if no constable or other authorized individual is available to act quickly enough.
Read More: What Is a Citizen's Arrest?
Basic Rules for New Jersey Citizen's Arrests
A citizen who makes an arrest must know for certain that a crime has been committed, and must have probable or “reasonable” cause to believe that the individual in question actually did it. This is generally interpreted to mean that a “reasonably cautious” person would arrive at the same conclusion given the circumstances, and that the arresting citizen was present to witness the crime when it occurred. A mere hunch isn’t sufficient to make a citizen’s arrest, even if it's perfectly logical.
For example, a individual might be found lurking in the bushes surrounding a jewelry store after the store's burglar alarms have gone off. Unless the arresting citizen knows for a fact that jewelry or something else was stolen or that the individual wasn't just lurking outside but actually went inside, a citizen's arrest can't be made.
Rules for Restraint of the Suspect
An additional rule applies after a citizen’s arrest has been made, and all three criteria must be met: a crime was committed, there’s reasonable cause to believe the arrested individual committed it, and the arresting citizen can only detain the alleged criminal for a reasonable period of time before taking him to the police, a judge or other government official. Casino employees have an additional option. They can take the offender to the Casino Control Commission which usually has staff in place on casino floors.
The term “reasonable” can be tricky here because New Jersey statutes don’t actually define it in hours and minutes, although case law has cited that more than 48 hours is “presumptively unreasonable” under the Fourth Amendment. Other New Jersey courts have indicated that it means “without unnecessary delay,” but that’s rather vague as well. False arrest can be alleged even if the first two factors are met, but the arresting citizen took her time about escorting the alleged criminal to the proper authorities.
Citizens should be safe, however, if they make an arrest and proceed directly from the scene of the crime to the police station or courthouse. Stopping to do an errand on the way or locking the alleged criminal in a spare room until a more convenient time might raise a red flag.
Arrests Are Restricted to Certain Crimes
Citizen’s arrests aren’t permitted for all crimes in New Jersey. The offense must be a felony or a disorderly persons charge.
Here’s where the law becomes tricky again, because New Jersey’s criminal statutes don’t specifically label any crimes as felonies. Instead, serious crimes are defined by penalties and potential terms of incarceration.
New Jersey courts have indicated that a “felony” is any crime that could result in more than a year spent in a state prison. And, of course, there are those loopholes in place for merchants and casino employees.
What Happens Next?
An arresting citizen should file a complaint against the alleged offender at the police station or other government office so an arrest warrant can officially be issued and the individual can be detained by the authorities.
In some cases, the police will prepare the complaint and a summons or warrant – all the arresting citizen must do is present the alleged perpetrator to the police and explain the facts of the situation and the crime. A summons obligates the alleged offender to return for a scheduled bail hearing at a future point in time.
In cases of some serious crimes, however, the police will take the suspect before a judge for a probable cause ruling, just as they would have to do if they had made the arrest themselves. The probable cause hearing should take place within 12 hours, and the arresting citizen might have to testify as to what he witnessed and the events that led to making the citizen’s arrest.
Police Officers Can Be Subject to the Same Rules
New Jersey case law has established that even police officers can be subject to these citizen’s arrest rules when they're making an arrest outside the city or town where they’re employed. For example, a Camden police officer can’t arrest an individual in Atlantic City, because a Camden officer wouldn’t have jurisdiction there.
A Camden police officer could make a citizen’s arrest in Atlantic City, however, provided that it meets all the other rules: The officer knows that a crime has been committed, she has probable or “reasonable” cause to believe that the offender in question actually committed the crime, and she takes the offender to the local authorities in a timely manner.
But there's at least one gray area here, too. A police officer who’s outside her jurisdiction cannot conduct a search and seizure for evidence, but rather is limited to making the arrest and taking the offender into custody – not pursuing other aspects of the crime, even and especially if the officer is in uniform at the time. That right is reserved for law enforcement personnel, and wearing a uniform implies that the officer is on duty and in charge.
- Fisher Broyles: The Employer Handbook
- New Jersey Courts: Charge 320C False Imprisonment (False Arrest)
- State of New Jersey Department of Law and Public Safety: The Criminal Law Digest
- Justia US Law: 2009 New Jersey Code Appointment of Citizen to Make Immediate Arrest
- Legal Information Institute: Citizen’s Arrest
- Official Site of the State of New Jersey: Casino Control Act
- Casetext: State v. Williams
Beverly Bird is a practicing paralegal who has been writing professionally on legal subjects for over 30 years. She specializes in family law and estate law and has mediated family custody issues.