Few issues are as confusing as whether private citizens can make an arrest. In Texas the answer is surprisingly “yes.” However, the law is very limited, and we highly encourage people to call the police instead of jumping on a suspected criminal.
In fact, making a citizen’s arrest is a good way of getting sued or even facing criminal charges yourself. Arrests rarely go as planned, and you might end up seriously hurting someone when you had no legal right to stop them. League City criminal defense attorney Tad Nelson provides an overview of the law concerning citizens arrests and encourages you to contact our firm if you face charges.
When Can a Citizen Make an Arrest?
Article 14.01 of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure says that a peace officer “or other person” can make an arrest without a warrant when an offense is committed in their presence or within view. This is easy enough to understand. You actually have to see the crime. You can’t be sitting at home, receive a phone call, and then run out and try to arrest someone.
There is a key limitation: the person you arrest must have been committing a crime against the public peace or a felony. A person committing a misdemeanor offense that is not against the public peace cannot be arrested by a private citizen.
By contrast, this same article gives a peace officer the power to make a warrantless arrest for “any offense” committed in his view—which makes sense. After all, they are professionals.
You can see the risk involved for private citizens hoping to make an arrest. Do you know what’s a felony or what’s a misdemeanor? If someone steals a watch, is that a felony or a misdemeanor? Everything hinges on getting the answer right. If you are wrong, and the person only committed a misdemeanor, then your citizen’s arrest is illegal. This is why you should call the police or notify security that a crime is being committed.
The Police Would Like You to Call Them Instead
From the perspective of the police, they would appreciate a phone call instead of a citizen’s arrest. One problem is that gathering evidence in violation of Texas law can prevent the state from introducing it into court. An illegal arrest will create headaches for future prosecutions.
You Can Face Criminal Charges Yourself—And a Lawsuit
What happens if you make an illegal arrest? Let’s say someone was committing a misdemeanor, and not one against the public peace, when you detained him. Under Texas criminal law, you could face charges for unlawful restraint, kidnapping, or even assault.
Under Section 20.02 of the Penal Code, for example, unlawful restraint consists of intentionally or knowingly restraining a person. Although the law makes an exception for a “lawful arrest,” you could face charges for unlawfully arresting them. At a minimum, unlawful restraint is a Class A misdemeanor which could result in jail time.
Even worse, you might be sued in civil court for false imprisonment. The person you arrested could request monetary compensation for violating their rights, and they could go after your property or bank accounts to satisfy a court judgment. All of this can happen because you made a mistake thinking you were legally authorized to make an arrest.
Arrests Can Escalate
This is a real problem with citizen’s arrests. Many people are threatened when someone they don’t know lays a hand on them—especially if you are waving a gun around at the same time. There is a risk the gun goes off in a struggle.
Most people have heard of the Ahmaud Arbery case out of Georgia. Three men suspected Mr. Arbury of stealing items from a house under construction, so they chased him in a truck for several miles. One of the men pulled a rifle out as part of an attempt to make a citizen’s arrest and ended up killing Arbury. Those three men are now facing life in prison.
Good citizens call the police when they see a crime. Of course, you can defend yourself from a criminal if you reasonably believe it is immediately necessary to protect yourself. But that’s not what we’ve been talking about in this post.
Experienced Criminal Defense in League City and Galveston
If you have been accused of making an illegal citizen’s arrest, please call Tad Nelson & Associates. We can analyze whether your arrest was legal, which could form the foundation of your defense. We can also defend you against other criminal charges, such as unlawful restraint or assault.