Every now and now and then when I am watching the show, What Would You Do? (a reality show that puts people in tricky situations to record what they do) I wonder about whether or not a person can really make a citizen’s arrest. There are also all the times that I am people watching and observe some illegal if not just all together messed up behavior. Could I just run over there all willy nilly screaming “citizen’s arrest!” ?
I know that it must have been done a time or two; otherwise there wouldn’t be rumors to the effect of its existence. So, what’s the deal with a citizen’s arrest?
What’s On the Books
The law on this topic, as with most United States laws, varies from state to state. Commonwealth states like Pennsylvania are more likely to have this as a legitimate law than more progressive states.
The main themes in citizen’s arrest legislation are that the citizen must believe a crime has been committed and state their intent to arrest the alleged criminal before attempting to detain them. Usually, the crime should be a felony crime.
The laws are surprisingly lax on any other real, tangible regulation in this arena. It would seem that citizen’s arrests are more of dealt with as they arise than anticipated and regulated.
When the Citizen Becomes the Criminal
As one can imagine, making a citizen’s arrest is fraught with potential complications. Not only is making a citizen’s arrest an incredibly dangerous and perhaps foolish thing to do; it verges on illegal very quickly.
You simply cannot just go around detaining people because you think that they commited a crime. The relative use of force is also not clearly regulated on the books as making a citizen’s arrest is not as much of a constitutional law concern as a regular arrest is. This is because the citizen bears the liability of the risk that the arrestee is innocent.
If a person you are arresting is innocent then you will likely be charged with crimes like assault, false imprisonment, wrongful death and even impersonating an officer of the law depending on how you went about the arrest.
The Proper Way to Make a Citizen’s Arrest
The short and skinny of it is; if the crime is a misdemeanor then you must see it happen. If the crime is a felony; then you can just be pretty sure the person did it.
In Minnesota, Penal Code states that “a private person may arrest another: (1) For a public offense committed or attempted in his presence. (2) When the person arrested has committed a felony, although not in his presence. (3) When a felony has been in fact committed, and he has reasonable cause for believing the person arrested to have committed it.”
Theoretically, announcing that you are going to make the arrest and approaching the person and guiding them to the nearest police station would be the proper and least messy way to make a citizen’s arrest. But, come one, is a criminal going to go down that easily?
So, technically we can all be superheroes. But unless you have a death wish or really want to complicate your life; you should just call the police.