On TV, in movies, or even in the news we are often confronted with stories about regular citizens arresting someone they believe has committed a crime. Many times, these citizens are hailed as heroes, but it is important to understand that there are specific elements involved for the authorization of making a citizen’s arrest. According to California Penal Code 837 PC, a citizen’s arrest is done by someone who is not a member of law enforcement or a government official.
When can a citizen arrest someone? They can apply their reasonable judgment when they believe an individual has committed a misdemeanor crime and the citizen witnessed it. For felony offenses, a citizen can make an arrest if they know the perpetrator committed the felony or if they have reasonable cause for thinking the perpetrator committed the crime. There are specific procedures that a citizen must follow for the action of a citizen’s arrest to hold merit in court. First, they must act on the arrest as soon as possible. Before making the arrest, the citizen should clearly inform the perpetrator that they are about to be arrested, as well as the cause and authority for instigating the arrest. Finally, police should have been called and the perpetrator must be aware of this fact.
As mentioned previously, in the media a citizen’s arrest is often portrayed as a heroic feat. However, a citizen has no obligation to put themselves, or others, in danger in order to apprehend a perpetrator. The citizen should avoid using anything beyond reasonable force, both for their legal and physical safety. Moreover, police should be called immediately. Trained and authorized police officers should be involved as soon as possible, and the citizen should not attempt to put do anything beyond an arrest. A very important note: a citizen’s arrest may not always be wise, given that a wrong individual can be arrested. In such a case, the citizen may be held liable in criminal and/or civil court.