Should You Attempt a Citizen’s Arrest?

by Dean Rieck

There is little debate about the right of citizens to protect themselves. However, when a citizen attempts to prevent or stop a crime, the rules of engagement are tricky and may expose you to legal jeopardy.

For example, making a citizen’s arrest may be legal in certain situations. According to FindLaw:

A person can arrest someone that they reasonably suspect of committing a felony, even if the felony didn’t occur in the presence of the individual making the arrest. As long as a felony was actually committed and the individual making the arrest knew of the crime, a reasonable suspicion about the identity of the perpetrator will justify their arrest.

The felony must have actually occurred before an individual can make a citizens arrest. Even if a person reasonably believes that a felony has occurred, if the crime did not in fact happen, the person making the arrest could become civilly and criminally liable.

But what about misdemeanors? What level of force can you use? How are the rules different if a law enforcement officer directs you to make the arrest? Are you aware of the legal risks if you violate someone’s rights in making the arrest? Do you know how to make an arrest safely? Are you well-schooled in local, state, and federal laws?

Here’s a recent example of a a citizen’s arrest gone bad when a gun owner attempted to stop fleeing shoplifters in Billings, Montana. From the Billings Gazette:

City prosecutors have filed charges against a man who fired his gun during an attempted citizen’s arrest in the Rimrock Mall parking lot.

The charges against James Ellis Newman, 30, come six months after the Feb. 25 incident.

Newman was charged on Aug. 18 in Billings Municipal Court with negligent endangerment and unlawful discharge of a firearm. The charges are misdemeanors.

The Yellowstone County Attorney’s Office previously reviewed the case and declined to file any felony charges.

Newman approached two people leaving the mall with a cart full of items, which he believed to be stolen, according to charges. As the couple loaded items into an SUV, Newman attempted to make a citizen’s arrest. The interaction was caught on video with multiple onlookers nearby.

The couple got into the vehicle, which lurched backward toward Newman, who held up a .45-caliber handgun. According to charging documents, a man in the driver’s seat got out and ran, and a woman took the wheel.

If this news report is accurate, the gun owner went too far by using deadly force to stop a simple act of theft. And even without the use of a gun, it may have exposed him to legal consequences.

In general, it’s not a good idea to get involved in stopping a crime unless you are absolutely, 100% sure you know what is and is not legal. And even then, it may not be wise.

The problem is knowing how to gain compliance from another human being. Police have the advantage of being officially appointed by your community to enforce laws, wearing a uniform that signals their authority, and going through training to learn verbal and physical compliance techniques.

When a citizen makes the decision to stop a crime or make an arrest, they generally have no idea how to do it. Without a variety of well-rehearsed tactics at your disposal, it’s too easy for the situation to escalate into a battle of wills and perhaps a physical altercation.

Not long ago, I went through my community’s citizen police academy and participated in a variety of law enforcement scenarios using non-lethal training ammunition. Those involving self defense were easy. When an armed driver pulled a gun, I immediately drew my weapon and engaged the assailant. But when faced with non-threatening situations where I attempted to gain compliance, I was at a loss.

In one situation, I found myself putting my hand on my gun out of frustration when someone would not comply with my request to see his identification. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know what the law said about the situation. I didn’t know local police policies. And I realized afterward when reviewing the scenario with officers that I was on the verge of drawing a weapon against someone who was being an uncooperative jerk, but not committing any crime.

The takeaway is that while it may sometimes be morally right and legal to make a citizen arrest or otherwise involve yourself in law enforcement, it can put you in a highly difficult situation. Not only could you escalate a situation beyond what is reasonable, you could expose yourself to legal serious jeopardy.

Dean Rieck is a partner with Second Call Defense, Executive Director of Buckeye Firearms Association, a former competitive shooter, and business owner.