Military and Police

Citizen’s Arrest

What is a citizen’s arrest? Let’s do a brief, cursory excursion into the concept. First, so as not to “trigger” any lefties, a PC disclaimer: I use the term citizen as it is a part of the term we’re exploring. However, non-citizen, legal (and, these days, probably illegal) immigrants also have this right. Another disclaimer: There is not one blanket citizen’s arrest law that covers the entire country. While similar, each state determines the specifics for what makes up a valid citizen’s arrest in their state. You can find more information at The Solutions Institute.

You’d think to a retired career law enforcement officer, the concept of the citizen’s arrest would be apparent if not obvious. But this is not necessarily true. Though I dealt with citizen’s arrests frequently, no one called them that. You know, like on TV when some citizen apprehends a petty criminal and declares, “I’m making a citizen’s arrest!” And, the criminal deflates, and acquiesces to his fate.

Recently, on a news show, I heard a reference to an attorney general (state or federal) as a “top law enforcement officer.” You know how the Internet is a black hole that sucks you in? Well, I wondered if they had arrest powers: the authority to take a person into custody. So, I got on my virtual surfboard and hit the web waves.

My research admonished if not chastised me. The information I was getting back relayed that while AGs don’t have specific arrest powers, they can order their investigators to make arrests based on probable cause derived from an investigation. Okay, duh, right?

But my information went further. This should have occurred to me, but AGs can make arrests because anyone can make an arrest: a citizen’s arrest. From what I gleaned, this comes down to common-law countries (former and current British colonies) from medieval times.

It seems sheriffs in Merry ol’ England encouraged people to arrest and detain (or transport to the sheriff) people they caught committing crimes. This made the sheriff’s job much easier—deputize everyone!

On a side note: Compare that with today where local leftist governments won’t even let cops make arrests, never mind citizens.

Anyway, there are differences between a sworn cop’s arrest powers (when they are allowed to use them) and that of ordinary citizens. Probably the one fundamental difference is the “presence” rule. Depending on the state, a citizen may make an arrest for a crime committed in his or her presence.

For example, a police officer may take a report from the victim or witness of a crime, after the fact, determine probable cause, and then apprehend and arrest a criminal suspect. For a person to make a citizen’s arrest, essentially, the suspect must have committed the crime while the arresting citizen is present.

Cops sometimes have similar restrictions. For instance, in my state there is a misdemeanor presence rule for law enforcement officers. Generally, officers may make arrests for misdemeanors (and cite for infractions) but only if they are present during the commission of the crime or some portion of it, such as if a victim or witness notifies the officer the suspect is attempting to escape.

Such as: a citizen is waiting at a bus stop. Suddenly, the citizen hears a commotion. He or she turns around and sees a man has taken a woman’s bag that he’s seen sitting on the bench beside her. The citizen stops and detains the suspect for police.

In reality, this may not always be the prudent course. Ordinary citizens are often best off being good witnesses because criminals are often big and mean—and armed. But, sometimes citizens are bigger and meaner, like a retired cop, a Brazilian Jui Jitsu fighter or a Special Forces soldier home on leave (Hey, it’s my story. It can turn out any way I want it to) and also armed.

Regardless, this bit of information is not an invitation to run around making citizen’s arrests. According to uslegal.com, there are consequences to taking this action. Among other things, you will have to justify the arrest to the police, you may not use excessive force (or you could be sued—or arrested yourself), and you may be required to appear in court.

Remember, this little diversion is just a bit of musing about something that caught me off guard and that I hadn’t really thought about in some time. I wanted to find out more, and I thought you might want to come along.

The opinions expressed here by contributors are their own and are not the view of OpsLens which seeks to provide a platform for experience-driven commentary on today's trending headlines in the U.S. and around the world. Have a different opinion or something more to add on this topic? Contact us for guidelines on submitting your own experience-driven commentary.
Steve Pomper

Steve Pomper is an OpsLens contributor, a retired Seattle police officer, and the author of four non-fiction books, including De-Policing America: A Street Cop’s View of the Anti-Police State. You can read a review of this new book in Front Page Magazine and listen to an interview with Steve on the Joe Pags Show. Steve was a field-training officer, on the East Precinct Community Police Team, and served his entire career on the streets. He has a BA in English Language and Literature. He enjoys spending time with his kids and grand-kids. He loves to ride his Harley, hike, and cycle with his wife, Jody, a retired firefighter. You can find out more about Steve and send him comments and questions at www.stevepomper.com.

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