The citizen’s arrest law is written in O.C.G.A. 17-4-60, which states in its entirety, “A private person may arrest an offender if the offense is committed in his presence or within his immediate knowledge. If the offense is a felony and the offender is escaping or attempting to escape, a private citizen may arrest him upon reasonable and probable grounds of suspicion.” In plain English, this means that if you are a private citizen and you are arresting someone because you think they have committed a crime, there are two different standards. If the crime is a misdemeanor, you have to have seen them commit the crime or have ‘immediate knowledge’ of them committing the crime. We’ll talk about what ‘immediate knowledge’ is in a minute. If the crime is a felony, you only need to have ‘reasonable and probable grounds of suspicion’ which is a lower standard.
In any event, you can only hold the person up until the point that they can be handed over to proper law enforcement officials. See Crocker v. State, 114 Ga. App. 492 (1966). You can’t punish the alleged offender, you can only detain them long enough to get the police there.
You can only use force to detain someone if that force is ‘reasonable under the circumstances.’ See Carter v. State, 269 Ga. 891 (1998). In Carter, the defendant chased someone who he believed had committed burglary with a baseball bat and beat him with the bat. The Court found that the force “could not have been” reasonable or part of a legitimate citizen’s arrest and convicted Carter.
The caselaw states that a crime committed in someone’s presence and within someone’s immediate knowledge are synonymous. See Johnson v. Jackson 14 Ga. App. 252 (1976); and Piedmont Hotel Co. v Henderson , 9 Ga. App. 672 (1911) among others. For either one of those instances to occur, the person making the citizen’s arrest had to have knowledge that the crime was committed “by the exercise of any of the person’s senses.” Johnson, supra. In other words, you didn’t necessarily have to see it, but you could have heard it, or felt the explosion, or made use of any of your senses.
The citizen’s arrest must take place immediately after the crime. You can’t wait until hours or days afterwards. If that kind of lapse in time has taken place, call the police.
Citizen’s arrests are not just used for us ‘regular folk’ walking down the street who may see crimes occur. Security guards, private detectives, off-duty officers who are outside of their jurisdictions, and a number of other quasi-law enforcement types often make use of this code section in order to detain suspected criminals until the proper law enforcement officials can be summoned to the scene and begin official action.
Obviously, the law is a lot more complicated than this short article can describe, and I don’t pretend to have all the details surrounding the current controversy. I only know that I see a lot of folks on social media taking sides and having legal opinions without knowing what the actual law is, and that is a dangerous stance to take.
Nothing in this article should be construed as legal advice. It is being offered for informational purposes.