Is a Citizen’s Arrest Legal in California?
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Are Citizen’s Arrests Legal in California?

By San Diego Attorney on October 4, 2021

A citizen’s arrest is an arrest made by a person who is not a police officer. A regular person can perform a lawful citizen’s arrest without being held liable in a civil case for interfering with another person’s interests in a way that may otherwise constitute assault, battery, or false imprisonment. Laws on citizen’s arrests vary from state to state. In California, it is legal to make a citizen’s arrest, but only under certain circumstances.

When Can You Make a Citizen’s Arrest in California?

For a citizen’s arrest to be legal in California, you must:

  • Witness a person committing a misdemeanor offense in your presence;
  • Witness a person committing a felony offense; or
  • Have reasonable cause to believe that person committed a felony offense.

Timing is also important. If there is a delay in making a citizen’s arrest, you lose the authority to do so.

What Are the Procedures to Follow in a Citizen’s Arrest?

When making a citizen’s arrest, it is recommended that you clearly inform the person being arrested that he or she is under arrest, communicate the reason for the arrest, and state your authority for making the arrest. If the police have been called, inform the perpetrator of that fact. It is important to take precautions to reduce the risk of harm to yourself and others nearby in case the perpetrator is armed or becomes violent. You must also consider the safety of the perpetrator and keep that person in a secluded location or out of harm’s way until the police arrive.

When Should You Call the Police?

It may be best to get the police involved as soon as possible and inform them of the situation instead of attempting to make the arrest yourself. One option is to call 911 immediately instead of attempting to detain the perpetrator. Tell the dispatcher you want to make a citizen’s arrest and why. Ask for the assistance of a police officer.

When Is a Citizen’s Arrest Considered Unlawful?

Private citizens expose themselves to criminal prosecution when they use force to make an arrest. They can be held criminally or civilly liable for use of excessive or an unwarranted amount of force. Use of deadly force is only justified if it is necessary to protect oneself or others from extreme harm. A citizen can use reasonable force to make an arrest, but what is reasonable is determined on a case-by-case basis.

What Is the Potential for Criminal Liability with a Citizen’s Arrest?

Criminal liability means the state can file criminal charges against you if you make an unlawful citizen’s arrest. The arrest could be unlawful if the person did not commit the crime, there was no reasonable cause to believe the person committed a crime, or you used too much force in making the arrest. You could be facing criminal charges with penalties including jail time and fines. Criminal charges arising from an unlawful citizen’s arrest may include:

What to Do If You Have Been Criminally Charged for an Unlawful Citizen’s Arrest?

In an attempt to prevent a crime, a person could make an unlawful citizen’s arrest and end up facing criminal charges. If this has happened to you, your best course of action is to speak with a lawyer as soon as possible. Our San Diego criminal defense attorney at jD LAW, P.C. can examine the prosecution’s case against you. We can evaluate the evidence and surrounding circumstances and work to get your charges reduced or dismissed. Call us at (760) 630-2000 to schedule a free initial consultation.

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