Good Neighbors. Great Lawyers.

How to perform a citizen's arrest (and why it's best not to)

By Johns, Flaherty & Collins, SC on Monday, July 29th 2019

citizens arrest

For all the talk, citizen’s arrests get very little action in the La Crosse area. That may be because few know where the law stands on the arrests or how to do it.

Wisconsin doesn’t actually have a specific statute regarding citizen’s arrests, but such arrests are covered by common law or judge-made law. Those laws allow citizens to make arrests under one of two conditions.

The first is when a citizen has probable cause to believe that the person they are arresting has committed a felony. An example would be if you are standing outside a bank and someone with a mask comes out of the building with a bag of money. That gives you enough reason to believe that the person committed a felony.

The second is when someone witnesses a misdemeanor and the misdemeanor is a breach of the peace. That means you can’t arrest someone for public intoxication alone, but you can arrest someone for public intoxication if they’re throwing punches or objects at people.

There is, however, one exception to the latter. Merchants may perform a citizen’s arrest when they witness a misdemeanor even if it doesn’t breach peace. That allows them to detain shoplifters.

When attempting a citizen’s arrest, it’s best to make certain police are called first. Then you can detain the person until police arrive. You’re best off if you can restrain the person with words only, though you are allowed to physically hold the individual if needed.

In some cases, a group will detain someone or run down a purse-snatcher and keep that person until police can get there, but that’s not necessarily a citizen’s arrest.

Generally, we don’t advise making citizen’s arrests. We do advise calling police and staying on the scene if it’s safe, but safety is paramount. If someone is wielding a knife or attacking someone, he or she may just as easily attack you. Some exceptions apply, particularly when the perpetrator is going to flee. For example, if you see a child being kidnapped and can block the kidnapper’s car from getting away with the child, it may be worth the risk.

In addition to safety concerns, you also face legal risks when making a citizen’s arrest. The Fourth Amendments restricts unreasonable searches and seizures, and you could be prosecuted for depriving someone of their constitutional rights. You could also face a civil lawsuit for false imprisonment, assault or battery.

Perhaps another reason we see so few citizen’s arrests is because criminals don’t typically operate in the open—or, better yet, crime is down. We’d like to believe it’s the latter, along with common sense.

You may also like: