What can you do if you see someone commit a crime and there aren’t any police officers around? Do you have to just let the bad guy go? Can you make a ‘citizen’s arrest’ like they do on TV and the movies?
Citizen’s arrest is a real thing. In Georgia, it is codified in O.C.G.A.§17-4-60, which says “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 person may arrest him upon reasonable and probable grounds of suspicion.” What that means in plain language is that you can only make a citizen’s arrest if you saw the crime happen with your own eyeballs. It can’t be someone else who told you about it. However, if the crime is a felony and the person is trying to get away, you can arrest them if you have a really good reason to think they did the crime.
Once you’ve made a citizen’s arrest, “without unnecessary delay,” (O.C.G.A. §17-4-61) you have to deliver the person you arrested to either a judge or a police officer. You don’t get to hang on to them.
Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should do it. Citizen’s arrests can be dangerous, to your physical, legal, and financial health. Here’s why:
Police officers go through a lot of training to know how to handle combative, uncooperative people they are arresting. There are techniques to use that will make sure no one gets hurt and the ‘bad guy’ is subdued. They also have a lot of tools at their disposal and protective gear. A private citizen likely does not have that training. You may get hurt. And the ‘bad guy’ might get hurt, too. You might think, “Well, who cares if a criminal gets hurt?” The answer should be: you. Remember, we live in a country where people are innocent until proven guilty. It is possible that you misperceived or misunderstood what was going on and no crime occurred, or was perpetrated by someone else. Also, if you hurt someone, you may be liable for their injuries: you might have to pay medical bills and/or pain and suffering.
When you make a citizen’s arrest, you’d better be super certain that a crime happened and that the person you are detaining is the person who did it. There can be a fine line between a citizen’s arrest and false imprisonment, and you don’t want to be on the wrong side of it. False imprisonment is a felony in Georgia, and it occurs when you “arrest, confine, or detain[ a] person without legal authority.” O.C.G.A. §16-5-41. You do not want to make a citizen’s arrest and then, when the police get there, find out that you are the one being arrested.
False imprisonment can also be a Tort, which means that someone can sue you in civil court for false imprisonment. That means you might be on the hook for money – and even if you don’t have to pay the person who sued you, you will still have to pay a lawyer to defend you and you will have the uncertainty of a lawsuit hanging over your head.
The law discourages vigilante justice: for the most part we are supposed to leave crime fighting to the professionals – certified law enforcement professionals and Superheroes with supernatural powers. Do what you feel like you need to do, but be aware the risks if you haven’t graduated from the police academy or been bitten by a radioactive spider.
Nothing in this article should be construed as legal advice. It is being offered for informational purposes only.