Legalese — Citizens Arrest!

“Citizen’s Arrest!”  We’ve all heard that term on TV and in the movies – but is it really a thing?  In Georgia it is.

O.C.G.A. §17-4-60 says that 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.”  In English, this means that a citizen may arrest someone if he sees that person commit the crime.  However, if the crime is a felony, and the offender is trying to get away, a citizen can arrest that person if they reasonably believe that the person committed the offense.

So, now you’ve got the bad guy.  Now what?  O.C.G.A. §17-4-61 says that if you make a citizen’s arrest, “without any unnecessary delay,” you should bring the person you’ve arrested to a judicial officer or bring him “and all effects removed from him” to a police officer or sheriff’s deputy.  “All effects removed from him” means that if you took his wallet out of his pants to get a look at his driver’s license, or to look through his phone, you have to give all of that stuff to the police.  You can’t keep the $20.00 bill you found as a “finder’s fee.”  Likewise, if he pocketed your wallet, you have to give your wallet to the police officer, since your wallet is now evidence.

Once the police officer gets the bad guy, then he has to bring the bad guy in front of a judge within 48 hours, or the bad guy gets to go.  This is the same rule for anyone arrested without a warrant – a judge has to get involved and find probable cause in order for the person to stay in jail.

Some of this seems kind of obvious.  If someone breaks into your house, and you hold him at gunpoint until the police arrive, clearly you have not committed a crime or done anything wrong.  However, without legal authority, you could be charged with aggravated assault or false imprisonment.  This statute gives you the legal authority to do what we’d all agree you have the moral right to do.  Plus, it tells you what you have to do next.  If you don’t get him to the police (whether by summoning the police to where you are or by dragging him to the police station yourself) right away, you have exceeded the scope of what you’re allowed to do.  You can’t keep him tied up in your basement for two days until you get tired of listening to him yell for help before bringing him to the authorities.  You have to do it right away.

That said, TV is still kind of unrealistic.  You can’t simply stop someone because they ran a stop sign by yelling “citizen’s arrest!”  That person’s failure to obey your demand to stop isn’t a separate offense like obstruction or fleeing and eluding like it might be with a sworn peace officer.  You also have to consider your safety.  Someone who has committed a crime usually has more of an incentive to do something desperate to get away than you do in keeping him at the location.  Making a citizen’s arrest is not worth it if you end up getting hurt – or killed – yourself.

Although common sense seems to be somewhat uncommon, use it in this (and every) circumstance.

Nothing in this article should be construed as legal advice.  It is being offered for informational purposes only.  No lawyer can advise you about your case without hearing the particular facts of your situation.

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