Young man in handcuff
Young man in handcuffs

Most Americans have heard of the concept of the citizen’s arrest though few have ever seen it play out and fewer still have ever exercised the right. Like many aspects of American law the concept dates back to medieval England where it was considered the duty of all able-bodied citizens to aid law enforcement in the performance of their duties.

Although the right to make a citizen’s arrest is not enumerated in the Constitution or the Bill of Rights many legal scholars see it as residing among the many unspecified rights referred to in the 9th amendment. 

If you think that all seems a bit vague you’re not the only one. And because of that intrinsic legal murkiness it’s a good idea to know a bit more about it before you decide to intervene in a bank robbery. So here are 7 things everyone should know about the citizen’s arrest.

1. The Police Would Prefer You Didn’t Exercise This Particular Right

To say the police wish the whole citizen’s arrest thing would just kind of quietly disappear would be an understatement. You will almost never hear or read a story about a private citizen restraining a bad guy that ends with a police spokesperson saying something like “We’re always glad when private citizens chip in to help”. Instead what you’ll hear from the police in almost every case is some version of “We don’t recommend people do this sort of thing”. 

2. You’d Better Know What You’re Doing Before You Arrest Someone

While laws regarding the citizen’s arrest vary from state to state in virtually every state you’ll need to know what you are arresting someone for, what type of force you’re allowed to use while arresting them and how long you’re permitted to hold them before you go ahead and attempt to exercise your right to intervene.

If you don’t have probable cause, misinterpret what’s going on and arrest the wrong person, hurt someone by using excessive force or hold them too long before turning them over to the police you could be sued for false arrest or even charged with assault and/or kidnapping.

3. Misdemeanors Are Probably Best Left Alone

It might be tempting to try and pull over and arrest someone for drunk driving but depending on what state you live in you may be exceeding your authority. State laws differ on what a citizen can arrest someone for and what they can’t.

Some states, for instance, don’t allow citizens to arrest people for misdemeanors.  So, if you see someone swerving down the road you may think they present a hazard but a court may decide their behavior was a simple moving violation and that you exceeded your authority by arresting them. Thereby opening you up to a wrongful arrest lawsuit.

If you’re going to intervene it should only be in a case where there is a clear cut and serious violation of the law so that you are on solid legal ground should your actions be challenged.

4. You Don’t Have the Right to Search a Suspect

While some states will allow citizens to seize a weapon that a suspect is wielding in plain view searching a suspect after detaining them is strictly a no-no. And that’s true no matter what state you reside in.

For the most part your rights end with detaining the suspect and alerting law enforcement. Although that’s not necessarily where your responsibilities end. Because you can expect to be grilled by police about what happened and, should the case wind up in court, you can expect to be called to testify and undergo cross-examination by the defendant’s lawyer.

5. You Can’t Stand Over Your Quarry and Gloat Indefinitely

So you chased down a bank robber and subdued them in an alley. Congratulations. The FDIC thanks you. Now that the suspect is suitably restrained however, you need to turn them over to the police ASAP. Leaving them tied up on the ground for a while to teach them a lesson is going to boomerang on you big time.

The fact is, if you don’t notify the police the minute you’re sure the suspect is properly restrained you’re flirting with danger because the courts don’t take kindly to private citizens (or anyone else) trampling on the presumption of innocence. And that’s what you’re doing if you hold a suspect too long before alerting law enforcement. So keep your righteous indignation in check and call the cops pronto.

6. Don’t Get Carried Away

The courts also typically decide on a case by case basis whether someone used appropriate force or not in performing a citizen’s arrest. But make no mistake. You need to be very careful not to get carried away. If someone is not resisting you can’t tackle them, jam their face into the ground and hold it there with your boot while shouting expletives.

You need to be as controlled as possible because you’re not a police officer. They are given broad leeway to use force on suspects, even those who are eventually acquitted. You however, have to be right.  Because if you use brute force to subdue a suspect who is later found not guilty, you can be charged with assault or worse.

7. You Don’t Have to Inform Someone of Their Miranda Rights

A common misconception is that anyone who is detained for suspicion of committing a crime must be informed of their Miranda rights. The truth is, a Miranda warning only comes into play if there is potential for interrogation. This is why people arrested at protests are rarely informed of their Miranda rights. Instead, they are merely charged with disorderly conduct or some such thing and released. Furthermore, private citizens don’t have the right to interrogate suspects, so no Miranda warning is ever needed when performing a citizen’s arrest. 


The citizen’s arrest is a well-known but little understood aspect of American jurisprudence. Be sure to keep the above tips in mind before deciding whether to intervene in a particular situation.