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How Do I Perform a Citizen's Arrest?

Terry Masters
Terry Masters

Each jurisdiction has its own legal requirements for a valid citizen's arrest, but most generally require you to first announce that you are making a citizen's arrest, detain or restrain the suspect with a reasonable amount of force, and then hand the suspect over the the police. There are many legal factors surrounding any action on the part of an ordinary person making an arrest. The potential pitfalls are so severe that unless you have made a study of the specific citizen's arrest law in your jurisdiction, you should likely leave suspects to be handled by the police except under extraordinary circumstances.

A citizen's arrest is any restraint or detention of a criminal suspect by a person who is not an authorized law enforcement official. Any person, regardless of nationality, can make an arrest under this type of law in the right circumstances. Most jurisdictions with common law legal systems allow ordinary people to make arrests, and the broad outline of the actual procedure is basically the same. There are distinct differences in the underlying legal standards that determine if the arresting citizen had the right to avail himself of this authority in the first place and whether the authority was exercised with requisite care.

A suspect must somehow be detained in a citizen's arrest.
A suspect must somehow be detained in a citizen's arrest.

To make a citizen's arrest, you must first witness a crime. Some jurisdictions require you to see the crime happen yourself. Others allow you to apprehend a suspect if he is fleeing from an area and you have a reasonable suspicion that he has just committed a crime. Most jurisdictions require the crime to be a felony, but some allow arrest in the case of certain types of misdemeanors. The arrest must always be necessary to prevent some further injustice, otherwise a witness is required to call and wait for police.

People involved in a fight might come under citizen's arrest until authorities arrive.
People involved in a fight might come under citizen's arrest until authorities arrive.

You must restrain or detain a person to make a citizen's arrest using only the amount of force necessary to control the situation. This is a subjective legal standard that courts qualify as reasonable force, or the amount of force a reasonable person would have used in similar circumstances. Any legitimacy of a use of force on another person is subject to the prerequisite legal standard that there were reasonable grounds to suspect a person's guilt.

All jurisdictions require you to turn over the arrested suspect to law enforcement at the earliest opportunity. Making a citizen's arrest is not something to be undertaken lightly unless you have a thorough understanding of the applicable law. Incorrectly applying the law can expose you to civil and criminal liability for assault, battery, wrongful arrest, false imprisonment, kidnapping, discrimination, bias crimes, or other illegal acts.

Discussion Comments

I have a very strange story and it involves a friend once being arrested by an ordinary citizen.

This friend of mine once was "arrested" by an elderly woman because they were parked in a no parking zone.

This woman told the person they were performing a citizen's arrest and calling the cops, as my friend tried to get into their car the elderly woman pulled out a can of pepper spray and threatened to spray them if they tried to flee.

Of course not wanting to get sprayed the person just waited there until the cop showed up, and the cop promptly told them to go and hassled the elderly woman for creating a dangerous situation and calling the police for something like this.

This is why the idea of citizens arrests are dangerous and they really need to be limited to things that are very important and there are no other option.

I am wondering what examples there are for proper types of citizens arrests in certain states and what limits there are?

@jmc88 - It is completely random and varies state to state.

To be honest, as a judge or law enforcement officer I would not want an ordinary citizen to hold a wanted person until the cops get there. This could cause a lot of trouble and endanger all those involved. For the most part citizens arrests rely on common sense to decide if one could act or not.

Say someone witnessed an assault, the witness could help the victim by subduing the person and calling the cops, making sure that the perpetrator is subdued and the situation calmed.

Some people believe that if the witness were to fight the assailant they would be liable and this is only true if they overstepped their bounds, which were necessary to subdue the dangerous person.

Because they were helping someone and were right in doing so they will be looked at kindly by everyone, especially the courts, for the citizens arrest.

@jcraig - That is very interesting, and I am amazed you are only allowed to do that much.

I completely understand how the law needs to be careful so someone does not do something unlawful or overstep their bounds where they or others could get hurt, but I think this is a law that needs to be more clarified.

There is enough crime that happens in society that ordinary good natured want to react and help, but most do not know what the boundaries are and really wonder what they are allowed to do and what they are not allowed to do.

I remember seeing a movie where a guy at a diner detained a person they knew as a wanted man until a cop came and the cop explained to them that they cannot do that. I really did not understand this and wonder if this was just a fictionalized version of a situation or if this would be proper procedure?


The issue of citizen arrest is really interesting because it varies from state to state and the person arresting the perpetrator must be careful not to over step their bounds.

I work as a security guard and to be honest I am only allowed to do a citizens arrest if absolutely necessary, as in if the person is obviously a threat to other people and I have no choice but to subdue them to prevent harm.

So basically I can only make a citizens arrest if it is impossible for the police to handle the situation due to the constraint of time. This is what a normal citizens arrest procedure is and I am not allowed to subdue a person, say they come into my building, without incident, but I notice they have drugs on them.

If a scenario like this is to happen then I have to call the police and keep them informed as much as possible and hope the person does not leave. I cannot detain the person because they are not deemed as a threat to harm.

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    • A suspect must somehow be detained in a citizen's arrest.
      By: jinga80
      A suspect must somehow be detained in a citizen's arrest.
    • People involved in a fight might come under citizen's arrest until authorities arrive.
      By: Monkey Business
      People involved in a fight might come under citizen's arrest until authorities arrive.