In 2020, a couple of men fatally shot 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia, assuming that he was a person involved in a recent spate of break-ins in the area. This incident is a controversial one and is mostly labeled as a hate crime. But, it also put the spotlight on a misunderstood legal tenet; “citizen’s arrest”.
The concept of “citizen’s arrest” has a key position in US history and community enforcement. However, the laws are unclear, and it often leads to injustices such as the Arbery case. Can private citizens act as de facto law enforcement personnel? Yes, but under very specific conditions. It also shows how important it is for citizens to know the law and their rights on getting arrested.
What is the Citizen’s Arrest Law?
Citizen’s arrest means that a private citizen can detain a fellow citizen if the latter has committed a crime. For instance, if a person sees a man resorting to violence against a woman, he can intervene and detain the perpetrator before the police arrive. In tort law, for instance, any person can make a citizen’s arrest without being held liable for interfering with someone else’s interests, if that intervention results in stopping an assault, battery, and false imprisonment.
However, the laws surrounding citizen’s arrest differ from state to state. This is where the problem starts in understanding the law. For instance, in California, the statute for citizen’s arrest is as follows:
Any person can arrest another for:
- A public offense attempted or committed in their presence.
- A felony committed in their absence
- A felony is committed for sure, and they possess reasonable proof to implicate the person arrested.
On the other hand, in Michigan, the specific circumstances under which a private citizen can make an arrest include:
- The felony is committed in a person’s presence
- The felony is committed outside the presence of the citizen
- If a peace/police offer asks for help in making an arrest
- If the person is a merchant or agent of a merchant and stops a person to commit a listed crime. Retail frauds in the first, second, and third-degree, for instance, are included in listed crimes.
Problems in Interpretation of These Laws
These little nuances make it hard to interpret these laws. In some states, the concept of “immediate knowledge” is important. For instance, in Georgia, where the Arbery case happened, arresters need to show proof of a felony being committed. Did they hear or see something? On what basis did they detain a person? In 2021, the Governor of Georgia repealed the century-old citizen’s arrest law, which reduced the power of bystanders to make an arrest if a crime is committed in their presence. The law was reformed a year after the Arbery case.
US citizens need to know their limits in making arrests. Police recruits in most cases would detain both the arrester and the citizen arrested to establish the facts. The arrester would have to give a statement to the police, and if necessary testify in the court of law. Illegally arresting someone can bring upon criminal charges, like impersonating a police officer, kidnapping, or assault and battery.
This doesn’t mean that a person shouldn’t fulfill duties towards being a good citizen. If they witness a person committing a crime, they should report it to 911. Undue use of physical force should be prevented. People shouldn’t create a crisis unless they have to defend themselves.