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See Something, Say (Do) Something, Making a Citizen’s Arrest

Many of you have heard the term, ‘See Something, Say Something’. The saying is used by law enforcement agencies around the world as a way of soliciting normal law abiding citizens to get involved by contacting the law enforcement authorities and report if they witness a crime. In fact, in many metropolitan cities across the US, you will see public service announcement posters reminding residents to stay diligent, get involved and if you ‘See Something, Say Something’.

It’s great that we are encouraged to participate in the wellbeing of ourselves and neighbors. However, what if you want to do more than Say Something. What if you witnessed a crime and wanted to take a different action, like pursue and detain the perpetrator until the authorities arrived. In other words, make a citizen’s arrest. Does this sound outlandish? Maybe not, and here’s why. First off, in many cities in the US it’s legal. Also, everyday there’s a growing number of civilians licensed to carry concealed weapons. With this in mind, it’s reasonable to assume that citizen’s arrests may become more common in the not-so-distant future.

Before you do anything you have to understand the purpose of this law. The idea behind this practice is to use reasonable force to detain a suspect until police arrive. There is, however, a proper way to go about this. So to help clear the confusion, here’s a brief look at how to make a citizen’s arrest, should the need ever arise.


Witness The Crime. If you haven’t actually witnessed the crime in progress, it’s not a very good idea to attempt a citizen’s arrest. The reason for this is that when the authorities do arrive, you will have to provide some type of “probable cause” for arresting the person, just as they would.

For example, if you witness one person stabbing another in the street, you would certainly have the legal right to detain them. This would not apply in a situation in which you overheard someone saying that they were planning to commit a crime since the crime hasn’t yet taken place. The same is true if you hear someone bragging that they did something for which they should be arrested. In such a case, you are better off calling the police, since they have their own protocol for dealing with threats or hearsay.

A Felony Was Committed. In most states, a citizen’s arrest is legal when there is reason to believe an individual has committed a felony. This is not usually the case when it’s only a misdemeanor. Since the definition of a felony can vary from one state to another, the best thing to do is familiarize yourself with the laws in your state.

Remember that crimes such as arson and murder will almost always be considered felonies, but things can get fuzzy when it comes to other crimes. One example might be theft, in which case it may only be considered a felony if the value of the stolen property is above a certain amount. This amount may vary, depending on where the theft occurs.

Was There a Breach of Peace. In this type of scenario, there may be instances in which a citizen’s arrest could legally be carried out over a misdemeanor. However, only a firsthand witness can arrest someone for this type of crime. This might apply in cases involving public intoxication, brawling or willful irresponsibility with a weapon. Note that some states do allow open carry of firearms and you do not have a right to arrest someone who is exercising that right in a responsible manner.

Is It Safe to Make a Citizen’s Arrest. Regardless of the situation, you have to remember that the suspect is probably going to resist. This could cause the entire situation to spiral out of control, risking not only your safety but the safety of others nearby. Make sure you’ll be physically able to restrain the person before making any attempts, especially if the person is armed. In such a case, you may be better off calling the police.

Be Aware of The Consequences. You should never attempt a citizen’s arrest unless you are absolutely certain that the law will be on your side and that it is the best possible course of action. Otherwise, you might find yourself on the wrong end of a lawsuit. If you are not willing to risk getting sued, then you’re better off leaving it to the authorities.

Making the Arrest

You’re Making a Citizen’s Arrest. Since you’re not an officer of the law, there are no specifics, regarding what you have to say. You do not need to read them their rights, because that’s not your responsibility. However, you do have to verbally declare that you’re placing them under arrest and make sure they fully understand what’s going on. Make yourself clear and explain exactly why. If you cannot do this or are unsure how to go about it, you’re better off calling the police instead.

What Is Reasonable Force. This is the part where things can easily go wrong. You are allowed to use only the amount of force necessary to keep the person detained until police arrive. If you use more force than is necessary, you might end up with legal troubles of your own. Make sure you do not harm the person in any way unless it is absolutely necessary. So use the least amount of force you can get away with. Do not try to tie them up and avoid using a weapon in any situation where your own strength would suffice. Unless you or someone else is being attacked, deadly force will most likely not be permitted. Furthermore, you need to remember that as long as you are detaining them, you are responsible for what happens to them while they’re under your control.

Don’t Forget, Call The Police. Do not take more time than absolutely necessary when calling the police. The sooner they can take the person off your hands, the less likely it is that something will go wrong. Also, let the police come to you, rather than transporting the suspect on your own. This will help you avoid any charges of false imprisonment.

Have Someone With You. The main issue here is safety and having someone else around can help keep the situation from getting out of control. They can also serve as a witness, in the event that something does go wrong. Do not attempt to detain someone by yourself, unless it is absolutely necessary.

Explain Everything to The Police. They are going to want a statement from you and you need to make sure that you don’t leave anything out. Include everything you witnessed regarding the actual crime and provide all details regarding your citizen’s arrest. If you did have to use force, make sure you tell the officers everything that led up to it and everything you did.

Always remember that the decision on whether or not to make a citizen’s arrest is entirely up to you. If you ever witness a crime in progress, the best you can hope for is that the police will get there in time to arrest the person, themselves. However, if you do decide to take matters into your own hands, you will have to take full responsibility for what happens, up to the time the police arrive.

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