A citizen’s arrest is the ability of a non-uniformed, un-trained member of the general populace to bring a criminal to justice; it’s almost like a form of vigilante justice, except that it’s ostensibly legal and encouraged as long as the bad guy really is a bad guy. But who can make a citizens arrest, and under what conditions?
As you might have predicted, that’s kind of tough to answer simply. First, let’s look at where the idea of a citizen’s arrest came from. In medieval Britain, sheriffs encouraged their citizenry to take an active role in maintaining law and order around town. Since the population of small towns was usually quite, in fact, small, sheriffs placed trust in their fellow citizens to apprehend ne’er-do-wells. This policy expanded into the New World as it was being colonized and populated, because police forces were scarce and people were largely on their own when it came to doling out justice.
Fast forward to the post-Revolutionary War period, when cities and towns were popping up throughout the former colonies and expanding into the wild West. The citizenry were again needed to help police wrongdoings, because finding an adequate amount of police to patrol the towns was difficult at best. This was still long before modern technology like cars and radios, so the modern policing tools that help allow the police to be everywhere at once, so to speak, weren’t available.
Once the 19th century began to come to a close, though, the population boom in America’s large cities began to make people feel more anonymous and less willing to jump in and meddle in other people’s business. Things began to look a lot more like they do today, with people keeping to themselves instead of intervening in other’s affairs. Police forces grew in number, and became more industrialized with expanded powers. But the citizen’s arrest was still a commonly accepted practice.
Nowadays, a citizen’s arrest is still allows under some very specific circumstances, which can vary from state to state. Some of the standard circumstances in which you are allowed to make a citizen’s arrest include instances in which a misdemeanor offense has been committed or is being committed while you are there, as well as instances when a felony offense has been or is being committed even if you’re not physically present for it. This is where things get a little trickier: generally, you have to have positive evidence that the crime occurred, that you were aware of the crime, and that you have a good reason to suspect the person you’re arresting. If any of these criteria aren’t met to a court’s satisfaction, you could be the one who ends up in trouble; typically, you can get sued.
Check with your local municipality before going out to fight crime, as rules about unlawful detainment, search and seizure, procedural steps, and the amount of force that is permitted.