You hear a noise and come across two men fighting on the sidewalk in front of your house. As you watch, one of them gets the upper hand and lays into his adversary in a bone-crushing manner that would make the Octagon proud. You’ve never seen the men before. What to do?
You call 911 and stay out of the way because the fighters are no threat to you and yours.
But what if the beat-down continues and the man on the ground, bleeding from multiple kicks to the head, quits resisting? He is being beaten to death. No sirens can be heard. It occurs to you that the man on top now may turn on you. After all, you can recognize him.
“Stop. I’ve called the police.” He doesn’t stop, but he looks up and stares at you. Now he can recognize you and he knows where you live. Time to draw your handgun. “Stop! You’re under arrest!”
“You a cop?” The man asks, backing away.
“This is a citizen’s arrest. Sit—and wait for the police.”
“It was his fault,” the guy replies; he’s no dummy. “He came out of nowhere. Hit me first. I was just defending myself. You’re going to be in big trouble when the cops get here.”
Chances are the guy you’re now holding at gunpoint is going to run away or he’s going to look at the muzzle of your handgun and begin grooming—straightening his shirt, running his fingers through his hair, wiping any blood onto his jeans—while he waits for the police. If he turns and runs, you let him go. He’s no longer an imminent threat. If he waits, you wait. It’s too bad you can’t administer first aid to the man on the ground, but your safety comes first and the man you’re holding at gunpoint is unpredictable.
Citizen’s arrest? Isn’t that just a plot device used in cheap crime novels and comic books?
Actually, no. You can make a citizen’s arrest. Depending on your state’s law, it can be a valid legal procedure, within limits. It’s an old concept, but apparently, most states have incorporated the warrantless arrest by a private person to some extent into their legal statutes. The question of course is, “Why would you want to?”
It might be fun—and instructive—to Google your state statute on citizen’s arrest. According to Wikipedia.com, a “private person”—that’s you or me, not a sworn law enforcement officer—”is justified in using non-deadly force upon another if he reasonably believes that: 1. such other person is committing a felony or a misdemeanor amounting to a breach of the peace; and 2. the force used is necessary to prevent further commission of the offense and to apprehend the offender. The force must be reasonable under the circumstances to restrain the individual arrested.”
Of course, in making a citizen’s arrest, you could open yourself to lawsuits or even criminal charges for false imprisonment, unlawful restraint, kidnapping, or wrongful arrest. In the above hypothetical case, by ordering the man to sit down and wait on the police, you have de facto made an arrest and when police arrive, they are simply taking over the arrest from you.
But what if the angry man you are holding at gunpoint is actually the wronged individual and he was only protecting himself? It would be a fact you did not witness and could not verify. And the police will eventually arrive and see you holding a weapon on an angry and probably very voluble man. The police will order you to lay your weapon on the ground and put your hands in the air. What happens to your citizen’s arrest then?
So sure, you can make a citizen’s arrest, but what’s the point? Perhaps the very best you should hope for is that prior to the arrival of the police the apparent criminal runs away, you holster your firearm and try to help the victim on the ground.
These episodes are never clear cut or simple. What would you do? Do you know the law on “citizen’s arrest” in your state?
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