Real Crime Blog

Are Citizen's Arrests Really a Thing?

When the concept of a citizen’s arrest comes up in casual conversation, most people think it’s a joke or a myth. Can a citizen who isn’t a law-enforcement official really arrest someone at their will? We asked Live PD analyst Tom Morris Jr. about this mysterious practice.

What is a citizen’s arrest and does it really exist?
A citizen’s arrest is a provision within the law in most states where a citizen [who] sees someone committing bodily harm against an individual—maybe that person’s life is in jeopardy—that allows a citizen to try to detain someone if the police don’t get there in time.

When should you make one?
Almost no law-enforcement officer would advise a citizen to make an arrest. And almost no defense attorney will advise you to do that, either.

It’s something you can do if you see someone getting beaten up and you go to help them because that’s what’s in your heart and [you feel] that you need to help that person. But to actually arrest someone as a citizen, you can end up being liable.

What are the risks involved?
The person may try to sue you for unlawfully detaining them, because you don’t have the authority of the law. [While] you have this provision that says a citizen can make an arrest for an offense committed in their presence—especially if it’s a felony—you really don’t have the legal foundation that a sworn law-enforcement officer has. Anyone can use their best judgement in a life-or-death situation, but as far as police officers and lawyers advise, it’s discouraged.

Have you ever seen anyone make one?
We did [report on] a story on Live PD where a citizen, who was legally armed, saved a state trooper’s life. He was about to be killed by the side of the road. The state trooper pulled up to an accident and the male subject pulled out a gun and shot him. The guy got up and was trying to kill the officer when the citizen showed up and ended the threat to the officer with his own weapon.

Legally armed citizens have, and do, intervene in deadly situations to save the life of another person—and use what they believe to be justifiable or deadly force, but that’s facing a threat to someone else’s life. That’s a little different from just a citizen’s arrest.

What should we do to help instead of making a citizen’s arrest?
It’s law enforcement’s job to find suspects. You can give them descriptions of vehicles or clothes. Any information you can give them [that] points them in right direction to find the suspect, they welcome that.

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