Welcome to the Roundtable, a forum for incisive commentary and analysis
on cases and developments in law and the legal system.
on cases and developments in law and the legal system.
By Georgia Ray
Georgia Ray is a rising sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania studying Cognitive Science with a minor in American Public Policy.
In a small town in Texas, something out of the ordinary happened. A motorist held another man at gunpoint, waiting for the police to arrive, after witnessing him beating a woman in a nearby car. This civilian momentarily took on the role of a police officer, and by performing a citizen’s arrest he made real change in the life of the victimized woman . That said, the concept of citizen’s arrest is rarely understood and is often treated as no more than a hyperbolic plan of action.
The concept of citizen’s arrest originated in medieval Britain when police departments were understaffed and relied on citizens to help keep the peace . Not only were citizens allowed to make arrests, but some citizens would even take it upon themselves to do detective work in their communities. This reliance on the general population continued even past the establishment of America where tiny towns with small police forces needed citizens to be involved in regulating their neighborhoods and friends. However, as cities grew, police departments received more funds, hired more staff, and were allocated more resources. Suddenly, a veil of anonymity settled on the population and with it, this type of neighborly accountability became almost obsolete.
As times have changed, so has the law. Early on, the rules governing an arrest by a police officer and one by a citizen were very similar.  However, distinctions have since arisen between the two. As Ira Robbins writes in the Cornell Journal of Law and Public Policy, “A private citizen [is now] required to have suspicion originating from his own observations, whereas a peace officer could rely on accounts provided by third parties.” 
The basic framework of making a citizen’s arrest is not difficult, but the nuances regarding its legality are vague. Legaldictionary.net explains, “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.”  However, making a citizen’s arrest is risky. If the person is proven innocent, the arrestor can be brought up on charges of false imprisonment or assault. There is also a lack of clarity in the common law that leaves determining the legality of a citizen’s arrest up to the judge. In order to avoid a negative outcome, it is best to be absolutely sure that a crime has occurred and to notify the police before taking action. That way, the detainment only serves as a stalling mechanism until law enforcement can arrive, rather than an independent act.
As aforementioned, because the common law surrounding citizen’s arrest lacks specificity, many states have chosen to elaborate on its wording. For example, in some states, it is required that the witnessed crime be a felony,  which is even more restrictive as the common citizen is not necessarily aware of the distinction between a misdemeanor and a felony. Another example is that in North Carolina, citizens can only detain, not arrest. The difference between detention and arrest is that detention is when someone is held under suspicion of a crime having being committed and arrest is when they are actually charged. Changing the scope of citizen’s arrest to only include detention is really just a formalization of the expected conduct in other states, but North Carolina is the only state that has codified it. Ultimately, the implications of the variations from state to state is that one should familiarize themselves with the expectations of the state before taking action in order to avoid any legal ramifications.
Even though there is seemingly a lot of red tape surrounding citizen’s arrests, it has still been done. One such example is the aforementioned motorist who stepped in to help a battered woman . There have also been cases where a citizen stepped in to admonish a drunk driver . Recently, on April 15th, 2018, a man in Utah was detained by the residents of the house that he was burglarizing and because of this citizen’s arrest, he is now facing charges of arson, burglary, and theft . Citizen’s arrests can and have been effective, but it is important to recognize the nuances of the law before partaking in one.
A citizen’s arrest can be an effective additive law enforcement tool, but it also puts the person making the arrest in jeopardy. Deciding to take this step should be a calculated and informed response. Whether in medieval Britain or modern day New York City, making an arrest is not something to be taken lightly, and the first step in making that decision should be understanding the law.
 Mitchell, Mitch. “Motorist makes ‘citizen’s arrest’ in Southlake” Star Telegram, December 26, 2014. Accessed April 15, 2018. http://www.star-telegram.com/news/local/community/northeast-tarrant/article5033949.html
 Soniak, Matt. “Can Anyone Just Make a Citizen’s Arrest?” Mental Floss, December 13th, 2013. Accessed April 15, 2018. http://mentalfloss.com/article/54167/can-anyone-just-make-citizens-arrest
 Robbins, Ira P. “Vilifying the Vigilante: A Narrowed Scope of Citizen’s Arrest” Cornell Journal of Law and Public Policy, 2016. Accessed April 15, 2018. http://www.lawschool.cornell.edu/research/JLPP/upload/Robbins-final-2.pdf
 “Citizen’s Arrest” Legal Dictionary. Accessed April 15, 2018. https://legaldictionary.net/citizens-arrest/
 “Citizen’s Arrest Laws by State” Solutions Institute. Accessed April 15, 2018. http://solutions-institute.org/tools/citizens-arrest-laws-by-state/
 Mitchell. Motorist Makes Citizen’s Arrest.
 Citizen’s Arrest. Legal Dictionary.
 Gephardt Daily Staff. “Suspect charged with arson, burglary, theft after citizen’s arrest in Iron County” Gephardt Daily, April 15, 2018. Accessed April 15, 2018. http://gephardtdaily.com/local/suspect-charged-with-arson-burglary-theft-after-citizens-arrest-in-iron-county/
Photo Credit: Flickr User Dwightsghost
The opinions and views expressed through this publication are the opinions of the designated authors and do not reflect the opinions or views of the Penn Undergraduate Law Journal, our staff, or our clients.
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