citizen’s arrest | Definition

Doc's CJ Glossary by Adam J. McKee
Course: Criminal Law

A citizen’s arrest is the act of detaining another person by a private citizen who has probable cause to believe that the person has committed a crime.

A citizen’s arrest is an arrest made by a private citizen, rather than a law enforcement officer. In most jurisdictions, a private citizen has the authority to arrest someone if they witness a crime being committed or if they have probable cause to believe that a person has committed a crime. This concept is based on the idea that citizens have a responsibility to help maintain public order and safety. However, it is essential to understand the legal requirements and limitations associated with a citizen’s arrest to avoid potential negative consequences.

When is a Citizen’s Arrest Permitted?

A citizen’s arrest can be made by any private individual, regardless of whether they are a victim of the crime or a bystander. The circumstances under which this is permitted may vary by jurisdiction, but generally, they include:

Witnessing a crime in progress: A person may make a citizen’s arrest if they witness a crime being committed, such as an assault or theft.
Probable cause to believe a crime has been committed: If a person has reasonable grounds to suspect that someone has committed a crime, they may make a citizen’s arrest. This often requires more than just suspicion or hunch and may involve specific facts or circumstances that indicate the person committed the crime.

Arresting a person who is fleeing from law enforcement: If a person is attempting to escape after committing a crime, a private citizen may be able to make a citizen’s arrest to prevent their escape.

How to Make a Citizen’s Arrest

In order to make a valid arrest, the person must typically:

      • Have witnessed the crime being committed or have probable cause to believe that a crime has been committed.
      • Take the person into custody and hold them until law enforcement arrives. This may involve physically restraining the person, but it is crucial to use the minimum amount of force necessary to prevent injury or harm to all parties involved.
      • Inform the person that they are being arrested and the reason for the arrest. It is essential to clearly communicate the basis for the arrest and the suspected crime to the person being detained.
      • Contact law enforcement as soon as possible. Once the person has been detained, it is vital to notify the authorities to take over the situation and properly handle the arrestee.

Potential Risks and Limitations

It is important to note that this should only be made if it is safe to do so and if there is no other way to secure the person. Making a false or unlawful arrest can have serious consequences, including civil and criminal liability. Potential risks and limitations include:

Personal safety: Making a citizen’s arrest can be dangerous, as the person being detained may become violent or attempt to flee. It is essential to prioritize personal safety and the safety of others before attempting a citizen’s arrest.

Legal liability: If a citizen’s arrest is made without proper cause or using excessive force, the person making the arrest may face criminal charges or civil lawsuits for false arrest, assault, or battery.

Escalation of the situation: Attempting to make a citizen’s arrest may escalate the situation and result in further harm or danger to others, particularly if the suspect is armed or has accomplices.


In many cases, there may be safer and more effective alternatives to making a citizen’s arrest. These may include:

Calling law enforcement: If a crime is witnessed or suspected, the first step should typically be to call the police and provide them with as much information as possible about the situation.

Observing and documenting: If it is not safe to intervene directly, observe the situation from a safe distance and document details such as the suspect’s appearance, vehicle information, or the direction of their flight can be helpful to law enforcement in their investigation.

Providing assistance to victims: If a crime has occurred and there is a victim, providing assistance or support to the victim can be a valuable alternative to making a citizen’s arrest. This may include offering first aid, emotional support, or helping the victim contact the authorities.


A citizen’s arrest is almost always a bad idea.  It is essential to understand the legal requirements and limitations associated with it. Private citizens should prioritize their safety and the safety of others and consider alternative methods of assisting law enforcement when possible. If a citizen’s arrest is necessary, it is crucial to follow the proper steps and promptly involve law enforcement to ensure a safe and legal resolution of the situation.

[ Glossary ]

Last Modified: 05/07/2023

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