By Rachael Mason, THELAW.TV
If you’ve ever been witness to a crime, no matter how small the infraction, you may have contemplated intervening to stop the crime in progress … or at least to catch the assailant. But, can you really make a citizens’ arrest?
Any citizens’ arrests you’ve seen were most likely depicted on a TV show or in a movie, instead of on the streets of your community. So, do they actually happen in real life?
Citizens’ arrests do, in fact, occur in the United States. In November 2012, a Missouri bank president followed a man who had just robbed the bank outside. The bank president stopped the robber at gunpoint and held him there until the police came, according to American Banker.
In North County, California, a group of citizens have been patrolling the streets since an attempted kidnapping in December 2012, ready to make arrests if needed. They call themselves the Xtreme Justice League (San Diego Chapter) and they wear superhero-inspired costumes that include masks. Training for members includes the basics of citizens’ arrests procedures and self-defense techniques.
Historically, citizens’ arrests date back to medieval England, when sheriffs encouraged townspeople to help stop criminals.
When can you make a citizen’s arrest?
The laws vary from state to state, but a citizen’s arrest typically occurs when someone observes a crime and seeks to detain the person who has committed the offense. The citizen then waits for a law enforcement official to arrive. Most commonly, citizens’ arrests take place at stores, where people observed shoplifting are held until the police come, according to Alan A. Cook, director of the prosecutorial clinic program in the UGA School of Law.
It’s not recommended that you attempt a citizen’s arrest unless you have personally witnessed the crime taking place. In some states, like Michigan and Virginia, citizens can only make an arrest in the case of a felony.
However, if you’ve seen someone commit a crime like murder, rape or aggravated assault, then you probably shouldn’t try to detain them. In fact, if you haven’t had law enforcement training, you’d likely be putting yourself directly in harm’s way. Instead of attempting an arrest, use extreme caution and call the police as soon as possible.
Can you stop crime by performing a citizen’s arrest?
On the Internet, you can find instructive articles like “How to Perform a Citizen’s Arrest and Be a Real Life Superhero,” which was posted on Lifehacker.
However, performing a citizen’s arrest won’t turn you into Batman or Superman—and it could land you in court yourself. If you’re not aware of your state’s laws regarding citizens’ arrests, you can be prosecuted for breaking them. Even if you stick to the letter of the law, those who use excessive force when attempting to arrest someone can face criminal charges.
Still, there are ways you can help the police. If you see a crime, you can provide a detailed description of the suspect, as well as a firsthand report of what happened at the scene. If you’d rather not be directly involved, you can still contact local police tip lines.
Sometimes, you may actually be asked to offer helpful information. In the case of terrorism, for example, the Department of Homeland Security has asked citizens to contribute information about suspicions activities that could affect public safety.
And in kidnapping cases, Amber Alerts provide widely disseminated information that allows ordinary citizens to help catch people who have abducted children.