As a citizen, you have a right to protect yourself. However, when you attempt to prevent or stop a crime, the rules of engagement are somewhat tricky and may expose you to legal jeopardy.
For example, you can arrest a person whom you reasonably suspect of committing a felony, even if the felony did not take place in your presence. As long as a felony was committed and you knew of the crime, a reasonable suspicion of the identity of the perpetrator will justify your arrest. The felony must have actually taken place before you can make a citizen arrest. Even if you reasonably believe that a felony has taken place, if the crime did not in fact happen, you could become civilly and criminally liable.
But what about misdemeanors and what level of force can you use? How are the rules different if a law enforcement officer directs you to make the arrest and are you aware of the legal risks if you violate someone’s rights in making the arrest? Do you know how to make an arrest safely, or are you well-educated in local, state, and federal laws?
Here’s an example of a citizen’s arrest gone wrong when a gun owner attempted to stop fleeing shoplifters in Billings, Montana.
A man fired his gun during an attempted citizen’s arrest in the Rimrock Mall parking lot on February 25. After six months, city prosecutors have filed charges against him. He was charged on August 18 in Billings Municipal Court with misdemeanors for negligent endangerment and unlawful discharge of a firearm.
The Yellowstone County Attorney’s Office previously reviewed the case and declined to file any felony charges.
He approached two people with a cart full of items as they left the mall. He believed those things to be stolen. As the pair loaded items into an SUV, he attempted to make a citizen’s arrest. The interaction was witnessed by people nearby, and it was also caught on video.
The couple got into the vehicle, which lurched backward toward him. He held up a .45 caliber handgun, according to charging documents. A man got out from the driver’s seat and ran, and a woman took the wheel.
Given that the news report is accurate, the gun owner went too far to stop a simple act of theft. The incident may have exposed him to legal consequences even without the use of a gun.
The lesson here is not to get involved in stopping a crime unless you are sure you know what is and is not legal. It may not be wise even then to do such thing.
The problem is that citizens generally don’t have an idea how to gain compliance from another human being. Police have the advantage of wearing a uniform that signals their authority and being officially appointed by the community to enforce laws. Moreover, they also have undergone training for verbal and physical compliance techniques.
Without a variety of well-rehearsed techniques at your disposal, stopping a crime or making an arrest will likely to escalate into a battle of wills and a physical altercation. It may sometimes be morally correct and legal to make a citizen arrest, but it could also expose you to dangerous legal jeopardy. Now, should you attempt a citizen’s arrest?