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The good, the bad and the ugly of citizen’s arrests

Nearly every state has a citizen’s arrest law allowing civilians to detain someone if they have witnessed a crime being committed. Some of these laws allow only felony suspects to be held until law enforcement arrives, while others also allow those suspected of “breach of peace” misdemeanors to be held.

Does this mean you can use any force necessary to restrain the Peeping Tom outside your daughter’s window or the neighborhood vandal who is spray painting your mailbox? Not exactly; it’s more complicated than that.

People are reevaluating citizen’s arrest laws these days because of the Feb. 23 shooting death of jogger Ahmaud Arbery in Glynn County, Georgia. A local prosecutor blocked the arrest of Gregory and Travis McMichael, the white father-and-son duo who were seen on video pursuing Arbery through their neighborhood and whose gun caused the young black man’s death. The prosecutor cited Georgia’s citizen’s arrest law when he seemed to declare the men were legally in “hot pursuit” and had “solid firsthand probable cause” that Arbery was a “burglary suspect.”

There is absolutely no evidence Arbery, 25, was a burglar, although he was seen briefly wandering through a home under construction. Arbery was not armed as he jogged through the McMichael’s neighborhood. He had no alcohol or drugs in his system when he was fatally shot twice in the chest.

According to Lawrence Zimmerman, the president of Georgia’s Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, his state’s citizen’s arrest law says force can only be used to prevent a violent felony. “What is not lawful is, you can’t detain somebody and then use force,” he said.

It took more than two months and very public protests before the Georgia Bureau of Investigation stepped in and both McMichael men were arrested. They are charged with murder and aggravated assault.

Some crime-and-justice types now argue that citizen’s arrest laws, on the books in Georgia since Civil War days, should be scrapped. They believe there is adequate policing these days and no need for civilians to put themselves in harm’s way. Others point to diminishing staffing in police departments, nationwide, and maintain citizen involvement remains key to catching criminals.

Now, back to your Peeping Tom or mailbox vandal. Say you forcibly hold the person while your spouse calls police. In the scuffle the suspect has a heart attack or sustains a broken bone. Since force is, generally, not allowed under current citizen’s arrest laws you have just opened yourself up to possible arrest for assault or a civil lawsuit. Things can quickly get out of control.

Last spring Hannah Payne, 21, likely had citizen’s arrest on her mind when she followed Kenneth Herring, 62, after watching him flee the scene of a fender bender. A Fayetteville, Georgia, 911 dispatcher was on the phone with Payne, urging the young woman not to confront the guilty driver. Payne did it anyway, with a gun in her hand. Witnesses say the young woman ordered Herring to “Get out of the car!” sounding every bit like an officer “on a cop’s show on TV.” Herring was shot in the abdomen and died. Payne now faces multiple murder-related charges.

Or consider the case of Gary, Indiana, City Council President Ron Brewer. Last September he and his wife spotted his stolen Lexus with a group of teens inside. They called a 911 operator and gave chase. Brewer was caught on 911 audiotape shooting at the suspects – a bullet hole was found in the trunk of his Lexus – and grabbing up a 14-year old suspect telling him his mother would be getting him back “in a (expletive) body bag.” Instead of driving the youngster to the police station, Brewer took him home. The upshot of this apparent attempt at a citizen’s arrest? Brewer was charged with criminal recklessness and kidnapping.

It’s likely most citizen’s arrests go just fine. The suspect is held, officers arrive and justice is done. Police can’t be everywhere, and well-meaning citizens can be an asset.

I don’t believe it’s time to scrap citizen arrest laws, although some should probably be clarified. That said, we cannot allow vigilante-style justice to take hold. Those who cross the line from Good Samaritan to imitating TV cops must be held accountable.; e-mail to


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