While virtually everyone has heard the term “citizen’s arrest” used at some point in time, rarely do people realize that the term has specific legal meaning and potentially serious legal implications.
The definition is simple enough: a “citizen’s arrest” is an arrest by any civilian (not necessarily a “citizen” in some states) who does not have official government authority to make an arrest. In fact “citizen arrests” are legal in every state, though state laws with respect to the situations in which such arrests are permissible vary.
As a general rule, every state permits a civilian to make an arrest if a “felony” (a very serious crime) is being perpetrated in the presence of that civilian. Where differences among the states occur is in matters involving “misdemeanors” (less serious crimes), and where a felony is not witnessed by the civilian.
The difficulty is NOT when the civilian arrests a person that committed a crime in his presence. Both the fact that the crime occurred as well as the identity of the person committing the crime is, in that instance, clear. More difficult is the situation where the crime was committed outside the presence of the civilian intending to make the arrest. In New York, such arrests should be limited to felonies. Furthermore, if the civilian makes a mistake and, it turns out, no felony was committed, the civilian may well be subject to a lawsuit for false arrest. If, on the other hand, the crime actually occurred, but the civilian makes a reasonable and good faith mistake as to the identity of the person the civilian arrests, then in that instance the civilian may be able to present his good faith effort as a valid defense to a lawsuit for false arrest. We should also mention, however, the possibility that the person arrested may file criminal charges of assault against the well intentioned civilian!
It would seem self evident that the best approach is always to contact the proper authorities, an act that has become infinitely easier with the advent of cell phones. If, as an absolute last resort you must resort to a civilian arrest, do so recognizing fully the legal limitations within which you are compelled to act.