How to Conduct a Citizen's Arrest, and the Possible Repercussions
You and a colleague are walking to a restaurant downtown for lunch when you witness a man approach a woman on the other side of the street, steal her purse and bolt past her. Adrenaline pumping, you chase the man down and tackle him, falling to the ground and successfully stopping his flight. You feel like a hero and have just exercised your right to citizen’s arrest.
The Texas Code of Criminal Procedure grants all people this right, stating, “A peace officer or any other person, may, without a warrant, arrest an offender when the offense is committed in his presence or within his view, if the offense is one classed as a felony or as an offense against the public peace”.
“Or any other person” in this context extends to citizens and non-citizens alike, San Angelo Police Department Public Information Officer Sergeant Brian Robinson explains. “According to the law, legally—technically—you can say ‘I’m placing you under arrest. Your music is a breach of the peace. There are four neighbors that are complaining about it,’” he says, providing an example of an offense against the public peace. “Technically, you can do that.“
The law is rather permissive at first glance and has roots in medieval England, Robinson says, when a police force didn’t exist and there was typically one man in charge of an entire town. “Back then, he just kind of said, ‘If you see somebody doing something wrong, you need to take care of it yourself and call me,’” Robinson explained. “That’s kind of how citizen’s arrest started.”
Since its archaic beginnings the law hasn’t changed much, however due to modern-day crime and the installment of a police force in just about every municipality, Robinson says the SAPD does not advise citizens to engage in a citizen’s arrest.
“First of all, it’s a safety concern for the citizen,” Robinson says, going back to the scenario of the man stealing the woman’s purse... If the person tackles the man and he then pulls a gun, knife or starts a physical altercation, serious injury could occur," he said.
“The other issue is criminal liability,” he continues. If you witness someone committing a crime and you try to intercept them, in the process causing the person to injure himself, you are civilly liable for his injuries.
“The officer is at that point (as described in the previous scenario) free from any liability because he acted in good faith…he acted on the information he had and made the best decision he could at that time,” Robinson explains. “The citizen doesn’t get that exception. The citizen is civilly and criminally liable where the police officer is not.”
Typically, when we hear the word arrest, we think of handcuffs and cell blocks. Technically, two things are required to arrest someone: You must first restrain or stop the individual from doing something, then you must seize the individual, or hold him there so that he is not able to leave. Binding the hands and escorting to jail are not required, Robinson said.
“Obviously, if you tackle the guy that’s just stolen the purse and you restrain him enough to get him under control, you obviously can’t just walk him down to the jail and say, ‘Here. Here’s this guy,’” Robinson said. “That obviously would involve the police department. The law doesn’t talk about taking them to jail or anything like that, it just talks about the restrain and the seizure.”
While citizens are permitted to arrest others witnessed committing crimes, the potential for unlawful arrest is still imminent, Robinson says. For example, if the man in the scenario wasn’t actually stealing his purse, but playfully running down the street with a friend whose bag he snatched because it actually belonged to him, the citizen who initiated an arrest has done so unlawfully, which is a misdemeanor. Should the man turn out to be a juvenile, the arrestor has committed a felony. Supposing he did commit a crime, the arrestor may still run into difficulty if he doesn’t take the appropriate action after the arrest is made.
“The law does not specifically outline how long one can hold a person, however other parts of the law describe issues of false imprisonment and unlawful restraint,” Robinson explains. “If you’re going to…act on these four words, you better know the 4-5,000 words that explain all the other things that you’ll be jumping off into. When they say ‘ignorance of the law is no excuse,’ that’s exactly right.”
Throughout his years on the San Angelo police force, Sergeant Robinson says he’s never heard of a case in which an individual arrested another after witnessing a crime. He noted, however the exception that several citizens have detained burglars in the area over the years with guns until the police arrived on scene and took the criminals to jail. This is the proper course of action, he said, stressing that holding any citizen without notifying police could be a crime.
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