The Citizens Are Arresting


I seem to recall as a child always hearing about citizen's arrests. If someone did something wrong, you could "arrest" them. As an adult now, and more than happy to buy a pair of cuffs and do this when I see an idiot do something wrong, yet fearing a lawsuit or getting shot by some thug, what are the laws regarding a citizen's arrest? I have to assume the law frowns on this sort of thing.

-- J. Friday in training, Cop Town

M.A. is many things to many people, but M.A. is not a lawyer. It's not legal for the unanointed to give legal advice. So, I think that means you can take me into custody after you read this. Of course, you'll have to get past Grandma Alice first, and she's gone to put on her 'do rag and her new grill, which she thinks make people take her more seriously. I keep telling her the apron spoils the overall effect, but of course she won't listen.

True, we "private persons," as the law calls us, have arrest powers. The California Penal Code sections beginning at PC 837 spell them out. (These code sections also apply to law enforcement personnel.) But words on a page aren't much help when you're confronting a perp who takes exception and pops you in the nose. Maybe the heavy volume that contains the Penal Codes could be used as a weapon of defense, but otherwise having the law on your side is only a theoretical protection. People have been killed trying to make citizen's arrests.

The police urge that you call a cop to handle things, but if that's not practical or doesn't suit your style, you can take matters into your own hands. But we recommend that you have your lawyer with you when you do, so you don't end up on the wrong end of a lawsuit, like, Perp v. Angry Guy.

In California you can make a citizen's arrest for anything from an infraction to a felony (any "public offense"). But it must either be (1) a felony, misdemeanor, or infraction committed in your presence; (2) a felony, even if not committed in your presence; or (3) a felony not committed in your presence, but you have reasonable cause to believe the arrestee committed it. In the case of 2 and 3, you'd better be right (see previous lawyer recommendation). And taking a cue from your letter, I apparently have to add that, believe it or not, acting like an idiot isn't a felony. Not even an infraction. So, be careful.

So, how does the arrest go down. First, you have to tell the perp that you are making a citizen's arrest and tell him what law he's broken. You can use what the law calls "reasonable force" to detain the wrongdoer. Then hope that what you consider "reasonable" agrees with the judge's definition (see previous lawyer recommendation). You can't intentionally harm the scuzzball or detain him in unsafe conditions. And once you have him under your control, you must immediately call a cop, who will take over the situation.

Then, while you're strutting around feeling like Superman (or at least Underdog) the cop will be sizing up the situation, and if he/she decides not to file any paperwork or issue any citations, that's that. They're not required to. There's no guarantee that anything will come of your heroism. But if the issue does go to court, you must follow through on your tough actions and actually testify at the resulting hearing or trial.

The most common use of the citizen's arrest power is hauling in shoplifters and removing people who are violating restraining orders. But it's a big law-breaking world out there, so go to it!

P.S.: PC 847 says no one can be arrested for a misdemeanor or infraction between the hours of 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., unless the crime was committed in a public place. This is probably to keep police from rousting evildoers from a sound sleep in response to some misdemeanor. But if they can't do it, neither can you.

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