The quantity, quality and technological resources of our law enforcement professionals usually position them to handle literally all of the arrests of wrongdoers in our society.
However, private citizens can detain other people without an arrest warrant under certain, limited circumstances. This action is commonly called a “citizen’s arrest.”
Citizen’s arrests usually only arise in a few situations. Initially, many people accused of kidnapping will use citizen’s arrest as a defense to the kidnapping allegation. Additionally, employees of retail stores, libraries and museums will sometimes detain people for thefts of items because of the uniquely time-sensitive nature of thefts in these contexts. Finally, in some real estate ownership/possession disputes, people will attempt to detain others for unlawful presence on real estate.
Generally, there are four requirements that must be met if someone is going to make a citizen’s arrest in situations other than for thefts from stores, libraries and museums. First, the arresting person must have a reasonable belief (pretty close to “actual knowledge”) that the detained person committed a felony.
Second, the arresting person may only detain the other person until an arrest warrant can be obtained. This requirement is frequently what precludes a citizen’s arrest from being an effective defense for kidnapping (even if the kidnapped person has committed a felony) because a warrant can often be secured in a matter of hours or even more quickly.
Third, when the arresting person initially detains the other person, the detained person must be told that the arresting person intends to detain the other person and why. This requirement is waived if the person to be detained is literally in the midst of committing the felony when the detention is undertaken. For example, if a private citizen encounters someone else who is literally committing an armed robbery, an explanation of the illegality of the activity and the intention to arrest are not required before the offender is detained.
Fourth, the arresting person must immediately transport the detained person to a local court or judge who has jurisdiction over the felonious act. When the detained person is brought to the court, the arresting person must file an affidavit swearing under penalty of perjury that the facts necessary to justify the citizen’s arrest were met.
If a citizen’s arrest is being made because of theft from a store, library or museum, the requirements of a citizen’s arrest are a bit more relaxed. The illegal act justifying the arrest does not necessarily need to be a felony. Additionally, an arresting person in these situations can detain the alleged thief for a “reasonable” time, which means that the arresting person usually has sufficient time to contact professional law enforcement to appear and take over the situation. The arresting people in these situations are specifically precluded from searching the detained person for stolen items and cannot use “undue restraint” in detaining the other person.
Notably, recording films shown in movie theaters is considered to be almost legally identical (in this context) to theft of items from a store.
Lee R. Schroeder is an Ohio licensed attorney at Schroeder Law LLC in Putnam County. He limits his practice to business, real estate, estate planning and agriculture issues in northwest Ohio. He can be reached at Lee@LeeSchroeder.com or at 419-659-2058. This article is not intended to serve as legal advice, and specific advice should be sought from the licensed attorney of your choice based upon the specific facts and circumstances that you face.