This publication explains the safest way to make a citizen’s arrest on a police officer or anyone committing a major felony. Police officers are technically not immune to arrest, even while on duty by a citizen. However, it’s dangerous if you try to do this yourself. It’s best to make a citizen’s arrest by calling and informing the police that you wish to arrest someone. When the cops arrive, inform them about the circumstances so they can take it up from there. In a situation whereby you are arresting a cop on duty, you want to talk to Internal Affairs or a supervisor. Of course, police officers do get arrested. There are situations where citizens book cops arrested by their own agencies. Usually, to prevent problems, the involved cop is booked at a different agency.
That said, different states have different laws governing when and how someone may make a citizen’s arrest. Knowing your local laws is crucial, especially since an improper citizen’s arrest might result in legal action against you.
How to make a citizen’s arrest on a police officer
A citizen’s arrest (whether on cops or private individuals) is only allowed in cases where a crime is being committed in the presence of the person making the arrest. Note that making a citizen’s arrest can be dangerous, and should only be done in situations where the person you’re arresting is a threat to public safety and there is no other option available.
1. Determine if a citizen’s arrest is worth it
You must have witnessed a crime taking place, otherwise, you can’t make a citizen’s arrest. You need probable cause for the arrest to present to the police when they arrive. That means you must be able to prove that you had a reasonable belief that the individual you detained was guilty of a crime. For example, if you witness a bad cop stab another person with a knife, you have evidence of the crime and can keep the suspect in custody.
2. Be sure the crime is a felony
When you witness a crime being committed or have cause to suspect that it was, even if it wasn’t in your presence, it is generally legal to conduct a citizen’s arrest—FindLaw. When a crime is simply a misdemeanor, citizen’s arrests are usually not permitted. Thus, it’s a good idea to research your state’s felony definition as it differs slightly from state to state.
Below are crimes that are typically considered a felony:
- Property theft worth more than $500
- Murder, rape, or physical attack resulting in bodily injury
- Indecent behavior before a child
- Hit and run
However, in some states, regardless of whether it is a felony or misdemeanor breach of the peace, you can’t perform a citizen’s arrest on a police officer or anyone based on probable cause, even though “probable cause” is a requirement found in the Fourth Amendment that must be met before making an arrest—Cornell Law School. This means that in such states, you must be present at the time of the crime.
Also, determine whether the crime is a breach of the peace or not. If a misdemeanor constitutes a breach of the peace in your state, you may sometimes make a citizen’s arrest. Public fighting or intoxication are examples of misdemeanors in some states considered breaches of the peace.
You must have witnessed the crime firsthand in order to arrest someone for one of these crimes—Nolo.
Next, call 911 and inform the dispatcher that you wish to make a citizen’s arrest and give reasons for the arrest.
3. Let the person know you’re making a citizen’s arrest
Tell the suspect plainly that you are making a citizen’s arrest and will hold him or her until the police arrive. There are no specific words to use but be clear that you are making a citizen’s arrest. You can say “I am putting you under citizens arrest for _______.”
The individual you’re arresting must understand everything that’s going on. Try to justify your decision to the suspect, otherwise, do not perform the citizen’s arrest. Some state laws may require you to inform the suspect of the precise crime for which they are being arrested. The police will inform the person of their rights, so yours is only to state that you’re making an arrest for the time being.
4. Detain the suspect
Use reasonable force if necessary to perform a citizen’s arrest and keep the suspect until the cops arrive. You risk facing charges if you use excessive force. It helps to have someone stay with you. The third party can help you in transporting the suspect if your state mandates you to. The third party also serves as a witness.
5. Turn in the perpetrator to the law enforcement
When the police arrive, turn in the suspect. Always make sure to call the police immediately after you take the suspect into custody. Remember that if you make an improper citizen’s arrest, you risk being sued on grounds of false imprisonment.
6. Tell the police what you witnessed
Tell the police officer all you have witnessed when they arrive. You’ll probably be asked to provide a statement. Make sure to include every detail you observed and describe what you did during the criminal activity and while making the citizen’s arrest on the police officer or citizen. Describe the amount of force you may have used to subdue the suspect, and why it was necessary to do so.
7. Prepare for the consequences
Before now, you would have decided whether a citizen’s arrest is worth it or not before physically restraining the perpetrator you wish to arrest. Understand that things can quickly spiral out of your control. Make sure to carefully consider your options before the arrest, especially if you’re dealing with an armed cop or citizen.
Make sure you are well aware of the conditions under which you may conduct a citizen’s arrest. You might want to look up the applicable laws of your state. Otherwise, contact an attorney through your state bar association or local law enforcement office for advice.
If it turns out that you made an improper arrest, you risk being held in contempt of court and may face charges of violence, assault, and other torts. You also risk criminal charges. A citizen’s arrest should only be performed if you find the risk involved to be reasonable.
Do not fake being a police officer to make citizens arrest.
Can you make a citizens arrest on a police officer?
You can but some experts believe that ‘practically’, you cannot make a citizen’s arrest on a police officer. The reason is that although the governing laws of citizen’s arrests do not generally exempt cops from arrest, an attempt to do so might result in the officer or his colleagues arresting you for “interfering with” or “obstructing” a police officer.
If you witness a cop engaging in illegal activity or other misconduct, the best thing to do is report it to a supervisor at their agency. That should get the officer in trouble while you go about with your daily business.
What are the rules for a citizen’s arrest?
The rules for a citizen’s arrest vary by jurisdiction. Generally, however, you need probable cause to believe that the person you are arresting has committed a crime. You must also use reasonable force in making the arrest. It is important to note that making a citizen’s arrest can be a risky endeavor and is generally recommended for trained professionals to handle law enforcement.
1. Make an arrest only if you witness a crime
Even though you may believe you have all the necessary proof to conclude that someone has committed a crime, your interpretation of the events may be incorrect. For example, if you heard someone talking about robbing a bank, it’s not reasonable to perform a citizen’s arrest on them. The better thing to do is to call the police.
Also, if you believe that someone is about to commit a crime, don’t make a citizen’s arrest. You can only legally make an arrest if the offense has already occurred. If no crime has been committed, you can’t make an arrest to avoid getting in trouble. Instead, call the police.
2. Avoid using excessive force
Be cautious about making an arrest and applying excessive force as a private individual—even the police are not permitted to use excessive force when taking a suspect into custody, except under specific circumstances, such as in self-defense or defense of another individual or group—the National Institute of Justice. Even if the person you arrest is guilty of a crime, you could be prosecuted for battery.
3. Call the police if necessary
Making arrests is not your responsibility as a private citizen, so call the police in necessary situations. Leave policing to the police to avoid taking actions that can endanger you, the alleged offender, and the public.
If you go beyond the scope of the legal authority expressly given to people by the law, your acts could also be construed as vigilantism, which is not legal in the US.
4. Ensure the suspect’s safety
Once you have a cop or a private individual in detention, you become responsible for whatever happens to them.
Also, do not take the suspect away from the crime scene—let the police arrive to do their job.
If you’re dealing with a notorious person, be very observant. It’s okay to let the suspect go if you can no longer contain them and feel threatened. You can always serve as a witness and try to identify the suspect later.
Can you handcuff someone in a citizens arrest?
You can handcuff someone in a citizen’s arrest but only if it’s necessary to subdue the aggressor. Generally, however, it’s not advisable to physically restrain someone during a citizen’s arrest. It is best to call law enforcement and let them handle the situation.
Citizen’s arrests should only be made where a crime is being committed in your presence and you have no other way to get help. If you feel that you are in danger or that the person you are trying to arrest is violent, it is important to call law enforcement for assistance. That said, only use as little force as possible and follow the laws in your jurisdiction. Remember: you risk legal problems if you use excessive force or make an unlawful arrest.
Why you should not make citizen’s arrest
Technically, private individuals have the same arrest authority as the police. However, making a citizen’s arrest is not advisable for the following reasons:
- safety: Given the level of violence in the world, you don’t want to risk your life and the lives of others around you;
- civil liability: If you make an improper arrest, you could be sued; and
- criminal liability: if you are wrong about the arrest, it’s a crime. Some states consider it false imprisonment while some consider it kidnapping.
Just call the police. Besides, you’re still going to call the police at some point, so make the call instead of the arrest.
Ultimately, a citizen’s arrest should be made during or immediately after the crime. For the citizen’s arrest to be valid, the statutory elements of the crime must have existed during the time of the arrest, this works for any kind of arrest—whether it’s a citizen’s arrest or an arrest by a law enforcement officer.
Do not attempt to arrest a citizen for an offense under international law such as war crimes. Local laws may not mandate arresting someone in this circumstance. Even though they may be guilty of an offense and you have the legal right to perform an arrest, it’s still not advisable.
This publication is for informational purposes only and not legal advice. To learn more about your local rules on citizen’s arrest, contact a lawyer through your State Bar Association or the office of your local law enforcement.
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