This is the first article in a series on the particulars of citizen’s arrests, including when, why and how these arrests are appropriately applied. This article series is not intended as legal advice. Readers should consult a licensed attorney with any specific questions or concerns on the subject matter.
American Public University offers academic programs in Legal Studies and Criminal Justice that cover important legal issues like these in greater depth. Readers who are considering expanding their knowledge or credentials in this field are encouraged to visit the university website for more information.
Sometimes people misbehave in a criminal way. When they do, we obviously hope there is a law enforcement officer nearby to address the situation. But sometimes that’s just not the case, which presents some serious questions worth considering: If we observe someone engaged in criminal behavior, what, if anything, must we legally do about it? Even if we’re not required to do anything, what can we legally do?
A Citizen’s Arrest Is One Possible Option
Under certain circumstances, one option — or even the best option — might be a citizen’s arrest. This tactic is something that businesses of all kinds may have to consider and train their personnel on. From restaurants and bars to nightclubs, casinos, hotels, and any other businesses with security concerns, citizens’ arrests may be prudent or even necessary in extreme situations.
But there are many questions that come up under the subject of appropriate use of citizen’s arrest authority. In this series, we’ll explore the general context of citizens’ arrests and what things security officers and managers may want to think about when considering this kind of action.
What Is a Citizen’s Arrest?
A citizen’s arrest occurs when a private citizen, who is not a law enforcement officer and not deputized in any way lawfully, detains another private citizen engaged in criminal conduct for the purposes of neutralizing a threat to safety and/or turning them over to law enforcement for prosecution.
You Are Never Required to Effect a Citizen’s Arrest
If you have no connection to the criminal, the victim or the property on which the criminal behavior is taking place, then you do not have to do anything. Sure, it would be good to try to help stop whatever is taking place or come to the aid of a victim. This is part of why we have Good Samaritan laws in place: to encourage people to help rather than ignore something bad that is happening for fear of encountering liability — or even personal injury — to themselves. But even so, you are still not technically (or legally) required to intervene.
However, what if there is a connection? For example, what if you are an employee of a business and a crime is taking place on your company’s property? What if the victim is one of your customers?
In these kinds of circumstances, there is a duty on the part of the business owner (and his or agents) to help in some fashion; he or she can’t just do nothing. But how much do you have to do?
The answer hinges on what is reasonable. For example, is calling 911 enough? In many circumstances, probably so. But might there be exigent circumstances when you would feel immediate action is warranted, even if not legally required? Sure.
Imagine, for example, that you own a bar and one of your patrons is getting rowdy. He stands up and begins taunting other customers. It becomes clear to you that a physical altercation is imminent. You call the police, and they are on their way.
But you know that they aren’t likely to get there in time to stop what is about to happen. What do you do?
You’ve already taken the first necessary step, which is to notify law enforcement. But can you also intervene physically in defense of your business and its other customers? Yes, and this is where a citizen’s arrest may be appropriate.
State Laws Vary on Grounds for Citizen Arrests
Check your state and local laws, as rules differ on what circumstances warrant a legal citizen’s arrest. For example, some states only allow citizens’ arrests for felonies while others allow them for less severe crimes such as breach of the peace.
You Must Have Probable Cause to Effect a Citizen’s Arrest
A private citizen can only detain another person pursuant to a citizen’s arrest with probable cause — specifically the fact that the person being detained committed a criminal act.
If you don’t have probable cause, you have broken the law. Detaining someone without probable cause is false imprisonment and/or kidnapping, both of which are serious offenses. This is why it is so important that you be confident about the grounds for a citizen’s arrest before you attempt to perform one.
What constitutes probable cause is one of those difficult legal questions, when the best answer without specific context is “it depends.” Some court have ruled that arrests by private citizens require a higher standard of probably cause than that which is normally required for arrests by police officers, but how much higher is a matter of some debate.
Did you actually see the crime take place? If so, then this is fairly solid evidence to support “cause.” But even if you saw it, is it possible you misunderstood the circumstances? For example, maybe it looked like someone was stealing an item from a store, but is it possible that person paid for the item earlier and you just didn’t notice?
On the other hand, if you didn’t see the crime and you’re acting on a report from someone else who did see it, you need to be even more careful. How sure are you that the alleged witness was being honest? How sure are you that he or she accurately remembers what they saw? And how specific is their recounting of what happened?
For example, suppose a customer in your restaurant tells you that a girl with blond hair punched another customer and then ran out the door. Assuming you trust the report and the description, should you run out and detain the first girl with blond hair that you see?
Probably not, unless there is no one else anywhere nearby and the possibility of a mistaken identity is effectively zero. No, you should instead try to get a more specific description so as to avoid ambiguity. What was she wearing? Skin color? Height and weight? Tattoos? Anything that you can use to support the reasonableness of your actions is helpful.
When Making a Citizen’s Arrest, You Must Act Reasonably at All Times
If your actions are reasonable, then you may be protected from legal liability. For example, if you made a good faith mistake. But the key is to behave reasonably at all times.
In the next part of this series, we’ll look at additional particulars surrounding citizen’s arrests, such as what needs to be said and what happens when resistance is presented.
About the Authors
Dr. Gary Deel is a Faculty Director with the Wallace E. Boston School of Business at American Public University. He holds a J.D. in Law and a Ph.D. in Hospitality/Business Management. Gary teaches human resources and employment law classes for American Public University, the University of Central Florida, Colorado State University and others.
Dr. Chuck Russo is the Program Director of Criminal Justice at American Public University. He began his career in law enforcement in 1987 in Central Florida and was involved all areas of patrol, training, special operations and investigations before retiring from law enforcement in 2013. Dr. Russo continues to design and instruct courses, as well as act as a consultant for education, government and industry throughout the world. His recent research and presentations focus on emerging technology and law enforcement applications, post-traumatic stress, nongovernment intelligence actors, and online learning.