Citizen’s Arrest

A citizen’s arrest occurs when a person not acting as a sworn in law-enforcement official arrests another person. U.S. law allows ordinary individuals to detain another individual until law enforcement officers arrive in certain circumstances. In this manner, a citizen’s arrest may be made by detaining a person suspected of committing a crime, or by directing police officers to arrest him if they are present.

Detaining an individual in a manner that violates the laws governing citizen’s arrests may result in the individual doing the detaining being charged with a crime, or being held civilly liable. To explore this concept, consider the following citizen’s arrest definition.

Definition of Citizen’s Arrest


  1. An arrest made by a private individual who has witnessed, or has reasonable belief that the detained person has committed a crime.


1950-1955        United States law

When a Citizen’s Arrest Should be Made

While citizen’s arrests are subject to fewer laws and regulations than arrests made by law enforcement officers, there are legal guidelines and restrictions as to when a citizen’s arrest should be made. Generally speaking, an individual may be detained by citizen’s arrest only if the person detaining him actually witnessed him breaking the law, or has a very good reason to believe he has just done so. In addition, however, an individual who is known to have committed a felony may be detained by citizen’s arrest until law enforcement officials arrive to take him into custody.

A person may be placed under citizen’s arrest if he is in breach of the peace, which is usually a misdemeanor charge. In order for this action to be legal, however, the arresting citizen must be present, witnessing the act, and have a reasonable belief that it will continue. In any use of citizen’s arrest, the police or other appropriate law enforcement agency must be called immediately and informed of the situation so that officers can respond promptly.

For example:

While walking home from work, Brent takes a shortcut through an alley. While in the alley, he witnesses another man strike a woman across the face with an object, knocking her to the ground. When Brent yells at him in an attempt to stop the man from further hurting the woman, the man attempts to run away. Brent catches up to the man and physically detains him, asking a passerby to call 9-1-1. When the police arrive, they take the offender into custody, and charge him with assault and battery.

Citizen’s Arrest for a Felony or Breach of Peace

The laws regarding when a citizen’s arrest should be made are intended to protect people from being randomly detained by other people. For this reason, any citizen considering placing someone under citizen’s arrest should be quite sure the other person is committing a felony, which is a serious crime. For example, an ordinary citizen generally cannot arrest or detain another person for a minor violation, such as a traffic violation.

The only exception to this rule is when the offending person is breaching the peace, which is also referred to as “disturbing the peace.” A breach of peace is the misdemeanor criminal act of engaging in disorderly conduct, such as:

  • Making or causing excessively loud noise
  • Shouting or yelling for an excessive period of time
  • Playing music so loud as to disturb the neighbors
  • Allowing a dog to bard continuously or frequently for prolonged periods of time
  • Fighting in public, or threatening to cause or engage in a fight in public

While it is legal to make a citizen’s arrest for breaching the peace, it is not recommended that individuals do so unless he has reason to believe that the disturbance is likely to continue. It is always recommended that those disturbed by the wrongdoing call the police immediately, as such situations often escalate when an ordinary citizen makes an attempt to detain the individual responsible.

Legality of Citizen’s Arrest

Arrests made by law enforcement officials are governed by certain constitutional requirements, which are taken into account in both federal and state laws. The legality of citizen’s arrest, however, varies by jurisdiction. Rarely, law enforcement officials instruct or request a citizen to detain an individual in a citizen’s arrest until they can get to the scene.

In such a case, the legality of citizen’s arrest changes, as the arresting individual becomes subject to the same Fourth Amendment restrictions on search and seizure as law enforcement officers. It is because of this, as well as the inherent danger that the arresting citizen may face, that this is a rare occurrence.

In the event a citizen detaining another person by citizen’s arrest, at the request of law enforcement, does not adhere to the standards for legal search and seizure, the arresting citizen may face criminal prosecution. In fact, if a citizen’s arrest is determined to be unlawful, the arresting individual may be exposed to civil liability, and the possibility of being criminally charged with such crimes as:

For example:

While Barbara is eating her lunch on a park bench near her office, she hears two people talking about robbing a convenience store. As the pair walk by, Barbara realizes one of them is her co-worker, Jack. Later that afternoon, Barbara sees two police officers standing outside the convenience store. Believing her co-worker actually committed the robbery he was discussing at the park, Barbara hurries back to work and places Jack under citizen’s arrest.

As it turns out, no robbery actually occurred, and Jack and his friend claimed they were discussing a hypothetical scenario. Jack was embarrassed by Barbara’s actions in placing him under arrest, and turning him over to police while at work. Even though the police released Jack very shortly after questioning him at their station, the situation had the effect of making other co-workers think poorly of him, and his employer questioning his honesty.

Jack files a civil lawsuit, claiming Barbara had falsely arrested him, and damaged his reputation. Barbara may be ordered by the civil court to pay damages compensating Jack for his public humiliation, time, and trouble.

Elements to Legally Make a Citizen’s Arrest

In order to legally make a citizen’s arrest, certain elements must be met. If any of the elements to legally make a citizen’s arrest are not met, the person making the citizen’s arrest is subject to criminal and civil penalties. The elements to legally make a citizen’s arrest require the arresting citizen to:

  • Witness the crime as it takes place
  • Have probable cause, or a reasonable belief that the individual committed the crime
  • Be as reasonably sure as a private citizen can be that the crime committed was a felony
  • Understand the responsibility and impact of making a citizen’s arrest
  • Determine whether it is safe to make the arrest

If the arresting person does not have grounds to make a citizen’s arrest, or if such an act may place him, or others, in danger, he should not attempt to make a citizen’s arrest.

Reasonable Force in Citizen’s Arrest

While the laws regarding citizen’s arrest are somewhat more lenient than laws governing arrests by law enforcement officials, excessive force cannot be used in making the arrest. Even private citizens must use only reasonable force in citizens’ arrest, though just what constitutes reasonable force depends a great deal on the specific circumstances of the arrest. When contended by the arrested individual, the issue of whether the force used in the citizens’ arrests falls to the jury or the trial judge.

If the arresting person failed to use reasonable force in citizens’ arrests, he may be subject to both civil and criminal liability. This is especially true if he used excessive or deadly force. In most jurisdictions, an individual affecting a citizen’s arrest may only use what would normally be considered excessive force if the arresting individual, or someone else present, is in immediate danger. Some states allow an arresting citizen to use reasonable force of citizens’ arrests to stop a fleeing felon.

True Stories of Citizen’s Arrest

In modern times, citizens’ arrests have become less common, as a fear of being held liable for detaining a person increases, and law enforcement are often only as far away as a mobile telephone. Still, many citizens do feel responsible for interceding when a crime is being committed, especially in situations in which someone is in physical danger.

Man Makes Citizen’s Arrest to Protect Woman from Harm

In 2014, police were called to a farm road in Southlake Texas by witnesses to a woman being beaten inside a car. When the police officers arrived, they found one man holding another man at gunpoint. It turns out that the armed motorist had witnessed the other man beating a woman in a car. He stopped, approached the parked car, and forced the man out of the car, then held him at gunpoint until police arrived. Police took the man who was seen by several witnesses beating the female passenger of his car into custody.

Afterward, the district attorney’s office determined that the armed man, who possessed a permit to carry a concealed weapon, acted within the bounds of the law, as he acted to aid a woman who was clearly in danger. Police later commended the citizen’s arrest, and the man’s willingness to act in the woman’s defense, but made it clear they do not encourage people to put themselves in danger.

Citizen’s Arrest of Drunk Driver

On October 27, 2015, Jared Sheppard and his family were headed to a family member’s house in Chickasha, Oklahoma. As they were crossing a narrow bridge, Jared, a volunteer firefighter, saw a car heading straight for them, driving in the wrong lane. He threw the car into reverse, and sped backward off the bridge to avoid being hit, or driving over the edge of the bridge. Still, the other vehicle almost struck the family’s car, but eventually swerved back into the proper lane.

As his wife called 9-1-1, Jared turned his car around and followed the car to the next intersection. When the vehicle stopped, he approached it and told the female driver she could not leave until the police showed up. The police who arrived performed a field sobriety test on the 44 year old driver, Joley Schulte, then arrested her for driving under the influence, and reckless driving. The police praised Jared’s actions in stopping the drunk driver and placing her under citizen’s arrest, as there was a very good chance she might have killed someone.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Authority – The right or power to make decisions, to give orders, or to control something or someone.
  • Civil Law – The body of law dealing with criminal offenses and their punishment.
  • Civil Liability – Responsibility for payment of damages, or for other court-imposed penalties in a civil lawsuit.
  • Criminal Charge – A formal accusation by a prosecuting authority that an individual has committed a crime.
  • Damages – A monetary award in compensation for a financial loss, loss of or damage to personal or real property, or an injury.
  • Felony – A criminal offense typically punishable by a year or more in jail.
  • Jurisdiction – The legal authority to hear legal cases and make judgments; the geographical region of authority to enforce justice.
  • Misdemeanor – A criminal offense typically punishable by a year or less in jail
  • Offense – A violation of law or rule, the committing of an illegal act.
  • Perpetrator – A person who commits an illegal or criminal act.