Vilifying the Vigilante: A Narrowed Scope of Citizen's Arrest

Ira Robbins


The doctrine of citizen’s arrest in the United States has been ignored for far too long. In every jurisdiction in the United States, a private person may lawfully detain another and often may even use physical force to do so. Placing such power in the hands of ordinary, untrained individuals creates the possibility that citizens will misuse or abuse the privilege, sometimes with serious consequences for both the arrestor and the arrestee. This risk is compounded by the disparate treatment of the citizen’s arrest doctrine in different jurisdictions and the ambiguities inherent in many of the doctrine’s key features—such as whether one may arrest another only on suspicion of a felony, or also for a misdemeanor or breach of the peace; the level of probable cause required to make an arrest; the length of detention that is legally permitted; and the appropriate amount of force used to effectuate the arrest. Citizen’s arrest arose in medieval times as a direct result of the lack of an organized police force and practical modes of transportation to get to the scene of a crime expeditiously. Citizens had a positive duty to assist the King in seeking out suspected offenders and detaining them. However, citizen’s arrest is a doctrine whose time should have passed many decades—or centuries—ago. As official police forces became the norm, the need for citizen’s arrest dissipated. Yet these arrests are still authorized throughout the United States today, whether by common law or by statute. With the core principles of citizen’s arrest in flux, it is exceedingly difficult for private individuals to understand the doctrine’s subtleties and to effectuate arrests lawfully, safely, and without fear of reprisal. Implementation is ripe for abuse. Moreover, citizen’s arrests performed by private persons acting collectively as volunteer watch groups, such as the Guardian Angels, are equally susceptible to misuse. Therefore, this Article recommends drastic restrictions on the scope of the citizen’s arrest doctrine in general and that its use be confined to three categories: shopkeepers, out-of-jurisdiction police, and private police forces with appropriate training and oversight. In all other instances, the doctrine of citizen’s arrest should be abolished.