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April 16, 2021

Civilian Arrest: What Is It? When, and Why You Can Use It

After reading this piece you should have a better grasp on what citizen’s arrest is, when you can use it, and what you should take into consideration before preforming one.


Civilian arrest, also known as citizen’s arrest, is the practice of an average citizen apprehending and holding a suspect until law enforcement can take over. However, over the years this practice has been muddled, both by media and popular culture, into a sort of legal grey area, where it’s no longer clear what you can and can’t do, and when. If you or your team has ever wanted to know more about citizen’s arrest, it’s important that you learn not only about the practice itself, but the legality in different states and surrounding different levels of authority. After reading this piece you should have a better grasp on what citizen’s arrest is, when you can use it, and what you should take into consideration before preforming one.

Simply put, a civilian arrest is an arrest made by a private, non-law enforcement individual. Many countries have individual laws pertaining to those who make citizen’s arrests that vary from strict to lenient. In the United States, citizen’s arrests can only be performed if certain crimes have been committed, though this list of crimes varies from state to state.  In California, under Penal Code section 837, a civilian arrest may be performed if a public offense was committed or attempted in the presence of the person performing the arrest, when a person has committed a felony, regardless of the presence of the person performing the arrest, or if a felony has been committed and the person performing the arrest has reasonable cause to believe the one being arrested committed it. Many states have similar laws that allow for arrests for “breaches of peace,” which can generally be defined as misdemeanors and felonies, but can include a wide array of minor offenses.

It is extremely important to understand your state’s common law and penal code practices before attempting a citizen’s arrest. Without probable cause and the correct legal precedence, you could find yourself facing charges of your own for unlawful imprisonment, assault, or even kidnapping.

When defining a private individual, the law says that any person not sworn to protect as a law enforcement officer is a private citizen. Despite what popular perception might have you believe, this includes civilians working in protection roles, like security guards. A security guard has the right within their job purview to enforce the rules and restrictions of the area they oversee, but law enforcement should generally be called in situations that are dangerous enough to warrant the use of a citizen’s arrest, and to protect your company from being wrongfully sued.

Situations that may warrant a citizen’s arrest include witnessing physical assault, trespassing, the sale of illicit substances on private property, theft, and other similar misdemeanors and felonies. Once again, it is important to understand whether or not these crimes fall under your state’s penal code before proceeding. It is also important to keep in mind that a citizen’s arrest is functionally holding a suspect until law enforcement can arrive. No excessive for should be used in these situations unless there is a genuine threat to your life or the lives of others. Simply finding a way to restrain the assailant will not only hold them but protect you in the long run.

Citizen’s arrests can be useful, but historically straddle the line between helpful and dangerous. Knowing the laws, maintaining self-control, and using good critical thinking skills are your best bet when it comes to making a safe and legal citizen’s arrest.

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