Citizen's Arrest

Created by FindLaw's team of legal writers and editors.

In certain situations, private individuals have the power to make an arrest without a warrant. These types of arrests, known as citizens' arrests, occur when ordinary people either detain criminals themselves or direct police officers to detain a criminal.

While arrests by private citizens are subject to fewer constitutional requirements than an arrest by law enforcement officers, there are still rules that apply. Failure to abide by these rules can result in civil and criminal liability for the arresting individual.

When Can a Private Citizen Arrest Someone?

A person can arrest someone that they reasonably suspect of committing a felony, even if the felony didn't occur in the presence of the individual making the arrest. As long as a felony was actually committed and the individual making the arrest knew of the crime, a reasonable suspicion about the identity of the perpetrator will justify their arrest. However, if the crime did not in fact happen, the person making the arrest could become civilly and criminally liable.

In general, people can't use a citizen's arrest for misdemeanors unless the misdemeanor involves a breach of the peace. Even in these circumstances, however, individuals can only make arrests when they've personally witnessed the criminal behavior and the breach has just occurred or there's a strong likelihood that the breach will continue.

Constitutional Requirements for a Citizen's Arrest

As mentioned above, a citizen's arrest doesn't carry with it the same constitutional requirements that attach to an arrest by law enforcement officers. If, however, a person acts on the request of law enforcement, any arrest they carry out must meet the same constitutional standards as an arrest by the law enforcement officers themselves.

For example, a citizen's arrest upon the request of law enforcement would still have to comply with the Fourth Amendment search and seizure requirements. A citizen could also face prosecution under statutes that make it a crime to deprive someone of their constitutional rights. If a citizen acts on their own initiative in making the arrest, however, those same constitutional restrictions do not apply.

Use of Reasonable Force

Despite the fact that citizens' arrests don't carry the same constitutional requirements as a typical arrest, individuals must only use the amount of force that's reasonable and necessary to make the arrest. Just what exactly constitutes the reasonable and necessary amount of force depends on the facts surrounding each arrest. Juries will usually examine the facts surrounding the arrest and determine whether the force was excessive.

Some states prohibit the use of deadly force except in circumstances where the person making the arrest or someone else is faced with the threat of serious bodily injury or immediate use of deadly physical force. In these situations, the person making the arrest may use deadly force in order to prevent harm to themselves or others.

Other states allow a private individual making an arrest to use deadly force to stop a fleeing arrestee as long as the person making the arrest used reasonable methods in order to make the arrest. Some states go further and require that the person using deadly force first attempt to restrain the subject of the arrest, and other states require pursuit and an explicitly stated intent to arrest before using deadly force.

Criminal and Civil Liability

The use of excessive force can open up the arresting individual to civil and criminal liability, which is especially true when individuals use deadly force to apprehend criminals. Any use of deadly force during a citizen's arrest that doesn't comply with the applicable state law could result in manslaughter or murder charges against the arresting individual. In additional to criminal liability, a private citizen may end up facing a wrongful death lawsuit from the family of the suspected criminal.

In addition to wrongful death lawsuits, a citizen's arrest has the potential to expose individuals to other kinds of tort liability if the arrest wasn't justified. If a person doesn't comply with the law's requirements when making the arrest, the arrestee could allege a number of claims in a personal injury lawsuit, including the aforementioned wrongful death, false imprisonment, assault, and battery.

Learn More About Citizens' Arrests: Speak with an Attorney

Every individual is empowered to arrest wrongdoers in certain circumstances, but citizens looking to make an arrest act at their own risk. Not only is the act of apprehending a criminal inherently dangerous, but failure to meet the legal requirements for a citizen's arrest could have devastating legal consequences for the person making the arrest. To learn more, speak with an experienced criminal defense attorney near you.

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