How to Make a Citizen’s Arrest

by Brett & Kate McKay on December 6, 2011 · 119 comments

in Civic Skills, Manly Skills

I think we’ve all thought about it at one time or another. What would you do if you saw someone commit a crime? Would you call the police and let them handle it or would you try to be a hero, chase down that purse snatcher, and make a citizen’s arrest? If you’re like me, you’ve probably dreamt about choosing the latter option. Imagine how badass you’d feel after capturing some no good hooligans and tying them up for delivery to local authorities. You’d be the leading story on the 10 o’clock news, the mayor would present you a key to the city, and women would swoon when they saw you in the self-checkout lane at the grocery store.

But before you deputize yourself neighborhood sheriff, there are a few things you need to know about making a citizen’s arrest. If done properly, you can indeed become the local hero. If done improperly, you can be at the receiving end of an expensive lawsuit or even criminal charges.

Or you could just end up looking like a Gomer Pyle:

Unfortunately, the reality of making a citizen’s arrest is a lot more complicated and a lot less romantic than you probably thought.

But it’s still worth learning about. So let’s get started.

(Note: A few things. Because I’m an American and the majority of our readers are American, I’ll be focusing on citizen’s arrest law in the U.S. Also, while I went to law school, I’m not a lawyer. It should go without saying, but this article shouldn’t be taken as legal advice. It’s strictly for information and entertainment.)

When Can You Make a Citizen’s Arrest?

The power to perform citizens’ arrests dates back to medieval England. To help keep the peace, sheriffs encouraged villagers in their jurisdiction to arrest criminals and hold them in custody until a sheriff with proper authority could arrive and hand down the punishment. The tradition of the citizen’s arrest carried over into English common law, and because the American legal system is based on English common law, we inherited the practice.

In the early part of America’s history, common law governed the power to make citizens’ arrests. Today, that power is governed by state statute. Every state in the U.S., except for a few states like North Carolina and Washington, have statutes granting private citizens the power to make arrests.

While most states allow for citizens’ arrests, every state has different laws governing when a private citizen can make an arrest.

Citizen’s arrest for felonies.  Most states only allow you to make a citizen’s arrest if someone commits a felony in your presence. You can also arrest someone even if you didn’t see them commit the crime as long as you reasonably believe a person has committed a felony. Oh, and the person you’re putting under arrest needs to actually have committed the felony. If you mistakenly thought you saw the person you arrested commit a felony, but he actually didn’t do it, you could be in trouble. More on that later.

So the commission of a felony is required in most states before you can place a person under citizen’s arrest. Okay, what sort of crimes constitute felonies? Well, it depends on your state. Generally, serious offenses like murder, rape, and armed robbery are considered felonies. Crimes like theft, arson, and battery could be considered felonies if certain conditions are met. For example, theft in Oklahoma becomes a felony if the value of the item(s) stolen is more than $500.

Citizen’s arrest for misdemeanors. Some states allow private citizens to make arrests for small misdemeanor crimes. Usually in jurisdictions that allow for misdemeanor citizen’s arrest, you have to actually see the person commit the misdemeanor and you have to place the offender under arrest immediately. Also, the misdemeanor must constitute a “breach of the peace.”

What’s a breach of the peace? Well, it depends.

Because the definition of a breach of the peace is different in every state, we’ll keep it general. Typically, things like brawling and fighting in public, public intoxication that disrupts order, and prostitution are considered breaches of the peace. In Oklahoma, even using language that would incite a reasonable person to violence could be a breach of the peace.

Check your state’s statutes to determine when you can make a citizen’s arrest. Most states publish their statutes online.

How Do You Make a Citizen’s Arrest?

You’ve seen a person commit a felony and you’ve decided to make a citizen’s arrest. What do you have to do? Do have to say anything special?

In most states, to make a citizen’s arrest, you just need to sufficiently convey, through words or action, that you intend to put the person under arrest. So a simple, “Hey, knucklehead, I’m placing you under citizen’s arrest until the cops get here,” will do.

After you’ve conveyed your intent to arrest somebody, you may use force that is reasonable under the circumstances to restrain and confine the arrestee. We’ll talk a bit more about what constitutes reasonable force below.

You don’t have to read the crook his rights. That’s the police’s job.

As soon as you detain a person, call the police so you can give them custody of the bad guy. While the bad guy is in your custody, he’s your responsibility. Make sure you keep him in a place where he won’t get injured.

How Much Force Can You Use?

Generally, when making a citizen’s arrest, you’re granted power to use a reasonable amount of force to detain the evildoer until the police arrive. What’s considered reasonable? Again, it depends (for a non-lawyer, I’m giving a lot of lawyer-ly answers here, I know).

If you see a bad guy commit a felony, but he’s unarmed and isn’t fleeing, reasonable force would probably be grabbing his arm and saying, “I’m putting you under a citizen’s arrest until the police get here.”

Doing a flying jump kick to his sternum and then putting him in a sleeper hold while whispering ”shhhh…go to sleep my sweet little evil one” would probably be considered excessive force, and you could be liable for any injuries you may have caused the bad guy.

But let’s change the scenario up. Let’s say you see this same guy committing a felony, but he’s running away. Chasing and tackling him to the ground could be considered reasonable force. If he starts to wrestle away, you can use enough force to protect yourself and ensure that he stays put until the cops get there. So a punch in the ribs and a well-placed arm lock might be in order. If the bad guy was injured during your scuffle, you wouldn’t be liable for any injuries so long as the amount of force you used was reasonable.

What about deadly force? Can you ever use force that could kill a person (like shooting them with a gun) to make a citizen’s arrest? Every state has different statutes governing the use of deadly force in a citizen’s arrest. Most states prohibit the use of deadly force except in circumstances where the person making the arrest (or an immediate third party) is faced with the immediate threat of serious bodily injury or death. So if Mr. Bad Guy has a gun and is pointing it at you or bystanders while you’re trying to detain him, you could shoot him, throw a knife at him, or even tomahawk him in the back a la Mel Gibson in The Patriot, depending on the weapon you had at hand.

Some states allow private citizens to use deadly force to stop a fleeing arrestee even if the threat of serious bodily harm or death does not exist. For example, under South Carolina law, certain circumstances allow a citizen to arrest “a person in the nighttime by efficient means as the darkness and the probability of escape render necessary, even if the life of the person should be taken.”

In other words, as long as it’s nighttime and a felon is escaping, you can use deadly force when making a citizen’s arrest in SC.

In other states that allow deadly force during a citizen’s arrest, you’re usually required to first try and detain fleeing felons with more reasonable and less lethal means before you start going all Dirty Harry on them.

Can You Get Sued and/or Arrested for Making a Citizen’s Arrest?

I’m sure we’ve all heard stories of some Good Guy Greg who makes a citizen’s arrest only to find himself cuffed in the backseat of a police car or slapped with a lawsuit by Mr. Bad Guy. These sorts of stories offend our sense of justice. Why should a person be punished for trying to do the right thing?

Here’s the rub with citizens’ arrests: private citizens are held strictly liable when they attempt to arrest someone.  That means if your arrest fails to meet just one of the conditions discussed above, you could face both civil and criminal charges. Your good intentions aren’t worth a lick, I’m afraid.

For example, let’s look at the felony requirement. You’re out running and see some guy using a coat hanger to jimmy open a lock on a car door.

“That’s grand theft auto! Felony! I can arrest this guy!”

You quietly sneak up behind him and grab him.

“I’m placing you under citizen’s arrest!” you triumphantly proclaim.

“Let go of me you idiot! This is my car! I’m just locked out of it.”

Uh oh. You’re in trouble.

Remember, most states require that a felony actually have been committed before you place someone under a citizen’s arrest. There’s no allowance for reasonable mistakes. The guy you just wrongly arrested could charge you with battery and assault, and he could sue you for a whole host of things like battery and false arrest. Lesson: Make sure the person has actually committed a crime before you arrest them.

The area that gets a lot of people in trouble with citizens’ arrests is the reasonable force requirement. Remember, you’re only allowed to use a degree of force that is reasonable under the circumstances to detain a person. If you beat the crap out of a guy while making your arrest, when simply holding him down would have sufficed, the police could charge you with criminal assault and battery, and the bad guy could sue you for any injuries you may have caused him during the arrest.

Even if you meet all the requirements of a lawful citizen’s arrest to avoid criminal charges, there’s nothing stopping Mr. Bad Guy from leveling a civil suit against you. Sure, you’ll be able to defend yourself in court, but you’ll have to spend a considerable amount of time and money to do so.

So with all that said, should you even bother making a citizen’s arrest?

It depends (you knew it was coming).

In addition to the legal consequences, you’re also putting your own personal safety at risk. Every man will need to weigh the risks and rewards and decide when he thinks it’s worth it to take justice into his own hands.

Would you perform a citizen’s arrest if given the opportunity? Under what circumstances? Have you ever performed a citizen’s arrest? Share with us in the comments!

{ 119 comments… read them below or add one }

101 Bret December 20, 2011 at 11:23 pm

I’m 16 in a small town and I saw this guy thats like 19 slam this girl into a wall. So I tackle him tell her to call the cops and I find myself in hot water for assault? Yay for the justice system!

102 Tom December 22, 2011 at 6:26 am

Nice to know that cops play by the same rules of liability assumption as a private person.

Oh wait, they don’t.

103 Jeremy Fletcher December 22, 2011 at 12:54 pm

Speaking from a law enforcement point of view, I enjoyed this article. I would definitely agree with the author that you must always consider your own personal safety first when making a citizen’s arrest. Remember that a car being broken into is still just a material object that can be repaired/replaced. I believe the smartest and safest thing to do is to be the BEST witness possible. This is of course unless the crime presents an immediate threat to someone’s life then do what you need to do. I have seen many accused criminals not held accountable for their crimes because the witness(es) were not that great. If you can observe everything that is going on with the bad guy while relaying that to authorities until their arrival, it can be extremely helpful. In CA you can even let the authorities know that you want to place someone under citizen’s arrest (misdemeanors) once they have safely detained the individual, as long as you witnessed the person commit the crime.

104 RealitiCzech December 27, 2011 at 11:45 pm

“I’m 16 in a small town and I saw this guy thats like 19 slam this girl into a wall. So I tackle him tell her to call the cops and I find myself in hot water for assault? Yay for the justice system!”
Don’t mess around with domestic violence. You can call it in to the cops, but don’t interfere unless you know the person very, very well (blood relative, wife, maybe a GF). You would be better off trying to fistfight a suicide bomber than interfere with DV. Even cops hate messing with DV situations, because the party used as the punching bag will usually deny everything and say they tripped or fell. And if you decide to knock the guy down, chances are the girl will start beating on you with the nearest rock. It’s deeply messed up, but that’s the way it is.

105 Tink34 December 29, 2011 at 10:03 pm

I encountered a situation where a hot head decided to stop a teen from getting change out of someone’s car…put a gun to his head and threatened to kill him if he moved before the police arrived…dragged him across the street and put the gun to his head again and informed him that he had hollow point bullets and wasn’t afraid to use it. I don’t agree with theft, but this seemed a bit excessive

106 Kenny January 4, 2012 at 11:20 pm

Always be careful when performing a citizens arrest. You never know who you could be subduing. You could be dealing with a murderer who just killed a dozen people and won’t be afraid to kill you. Or you could have a suspect pull a weapon. I always assume the extreme when dealing with criminals. If they are crazy enough to violate a law they probably are crazy enough to put up some sort of resistance

107 John Fiscal October 21, 2012 at 5:17 am

I think that citizens arrests are great on paper, but in practice, there are these pesky things called humans rights, and it’s fine and dandy to detain me for committing a felony, but to me, you’re some guy trying to kidnap me, with no evidence, and you’re not even wearing a uniform- so any reasonable doubt that you are in a position of authority isn’t there

LEO’s have to jump through a fair bit of BS to arrest someone legally, and even then it can be quite shaky, but those regulations and statutes are there to protect the detainer and detainee

With citizens arrests there is no such thing- Your ‘reasonable doubt’ might be garbage, you’ll probably get shot for trying to kidnap someone, and all in all you’ll have a bad day.

You are MUCH better off calling the police and giving them any evidence you have

108 Henriette November 25, 2012 at 8:20 am

Made me remember a police poster I saw a few years ago. Call the emergency number. Make sure you get a good description of the offenders. Take pictures if possible with your phone. This was after some highly publizised cases were someone actively intervened and got beaten to death. A good witness is more valuable then another victim.
Also, I would like to add, that before you run after a fleeing offender, make sure the victim is going to be okay or attented to. Running three blocks yelling stop, and not knowing if you will catch up, won’t do much good for someone with a serious injury.

109 MAN December 8, 2012 at 7:18 pm


110 Dave Johnnylaw JD, Northwestern California U of L January 1, 2013 at 4:55 pm

That’s funny that “Every state in the U.S., except for a few states like North Carolina and Washington,,” And there goes Gomer Pyle handing out citizens arrests to Deputy Fife in Mayberry….North Carolina. I guess the Andy Griffith’s legal continuity consultant was off that day.

111 CE Ramsey February 16, 2013 at 10:01 pm

In this PC age, when certain crimes by certain ethnic groups are committed and go ignored by the constabulary, I think citizen’s arrests can be a fine thing. i’ve read of many instances when they don’t bother to show up, or when they do, don’t arrest the culprits. i do believe it would send a message both to peretrators and their enablers that their conduct is not considered civilized behavior, and that we expect them to be suitably chastened for it.

112 Mike (U.S. Army Vet.) March 12, 2013 at 5:50 am

I live in Hawaii, and some no good scumbag threatened to slice me up after he started talking to me about drugs and I had kindly informed him that I don’t do drugs. So I called the police and gave them a report and asked to have him arrested on grounds of terroristic threatening, and all they did was talk to the guy and let him go! Some messed up system I served for man. What good is this system when it keeps letting violent offenders roam free to hurt more people? That’s all I’m saying…

113 Michael July 22, 2013 at 4:28 pm

Being a good witness is just a powerful and manly as making a citizens arrest. Perhaps more so. If there is no life in danger, instead of rushing into a situation unaware of what is happening, watch; remember; videotape with your phone. Call the police. Be ready to talk to the police when they arrive. Have the video ready to show them.

Now when someone is in danger, then I’d still forget the concept of “arrest” and just do what you need to do to protect that person. Whatever it takes. And when it comes to children, a man will do anything to protect them.

114 Jeff August 5, 2013 at 10:09 pm

Awesome read and I wish I had known or thought about some points before I made a successful citizens arrest in Chicago. So the story goes like this. I was with by friends band who was playing a show at a bar. When we were loading up to leave I catch someone spray painting the trailer. So then I confronted the subject and he said it wasn’t him then threw the paint can down the street and ran the other way. So I look around to make sure I wouldn’t get stabbed or shot by some gang bangers. Then I took off after him. About 50 yards later I grabbed him and held him against a brick wall. He tried to talk his way out of it and I just said I’m calling the cops don’t move or I’ll slam you. The cops showed up right away and promptly arrested him, thanked me and went on their way. After reading I don’t know if I would have done the same actions. Back then I was young and dumb, now I older and wiser and more importantly have a family that it wouldn’t be worth the legal consequences. My hipster friends were pretty shocked that I did it though.

115 JÖL November 28, 2013 at 10:42 pm

I recommend being smart. Make a wise decision. Be cautious, be patient, and consider all the possibilities. If you feel unsure, like you might be making a mistake, then let the mistake be that you were too cautious. It is always best to be smart. That is your greatest weapon, and your most noble asset. Be smart and act accordingly. I believe being manly requires first being a good man. That means knowing the difference between being brave, being macho, and being stupid. Be brave, be effective, be good, be safe, and be smart.

116 alex December 4, 2013 at 10:04 pm

It makes me very angry that some bad guy would sue you for arresting him. I can understand what they’re trying to guard against, but how hard does the government want to make it to do the right thing?

117 T.C. January 9, 2014 at 9:35 pm

Personally I’ve seen cops come too late the damage is done and while waiting for them the bad guys left you tell a description of the escaping car. The drugs are now gone, the girl is now dead, the kid is now in the hospital. what if you really could have made it better…. It really just comes down to timing, placement, and conduct.

118 DC Det. February 19, 2014 at 9:00 pm

The liability you open yourselves up to is not worth the hassle. We get paid to deal with these situations so let us handle them. Also keep in mind, the victims do not “Press Charges” The Law Enforcement agency and the Prosecutor’s determines the charges and charge the suspect. If you take action and it is determined that you are the one going to be charged, good luck.

119 Edalso April 7, 2014 at 8:58 pm

Agreed, for the most part thrusting yourself in situations like that opens up a big Pandoras box of liability issues.

Like for instance the guy you just tackled who stole Granny’s purse…he could very well claim you used excessive force and had some BS doctor back him up with some ridiculous injury.

Or…you see a guy inside a convenience store holding a gun to another guy. You pull your gun and shoot the would be robber….then it turns out the “robber” was actually another guy with a concealed carry permit who was holding the actual robber at bay.

There is way too much red tape nowadays to play hero. But, I digress, there are probably some instances where I would really have no choice but to get involved but we’re talking life or death, not your garden variety purse snatching or whatever.

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