Citizen's arrest: What you should know

citizens arrest

Understand the implications of taking matters into your own hands

Recently, the Ahmaud Arbery murder trial and others involving claims of citizen's arrests have garnered national attention, raising questions about citizen's arrest: when it's warranted, its lawfulness, and its necessity. It's worth revisiting this often-misunderstood legal matter. While citizen's arrests are rare in the La Crosse area, you may wonder whether it is an option in Wisconsin, how to perform a citizen's arrest, and the advisability of taking matters into your own hands. Read on to better understand citizen's arrests and the possible longer-term implications of arresting someone you believe committed a crime. 

Wisconsin law and citizen's arrests

Some states, like Minnesota, have a citizen's arrest law allowing individuals to detain a person who has committed a crime in their presence or who they reasonably believe has committed a felony. And some states, like Georgia, are repealing those laws of late and replacing them with new, more restrictive statutes. But Wisconsin has no specific statute that governs a citizen's arrest. As a result, the common law has established that individuals can make an arrest under certain conditions in the state of Wisconsin:

  • When someone has probable cause to believe the individual has committed a felony. 
  • When someone sees a misdemeanor crime happen, and the misdemeanor is a breach of the peace. In most cases, both conditions must be met for the misdemeanor citizen's arrest. The lone exception is that merchants can make a citizen's arrest to detain shoplifters, even if the suspect does not breach the peace. 

Just because you can, doesn't mean you should

As attorneys, it's important for us to draw a clear distinction between what the law allows and what's advisable. Just because you may be allowed to make a citizen's arrest under certain conditions, or detain a suspect until police arrive, doesn't mean you should. Personal well-being is an essential factor to keep in mind, even in the heat of the moment when the adrenaline is pumping. It's always essential to consider your safety, even as you weigh the risk to a potential victim or the public.

Overall, we don't advise making a citizen's arrest. In most cases, it's best to leave matters in the hands of law enforcement, who are trained for a wide spectrum of potentially volatile situations.  

If you deem it necessary to attempt a citizen's arrest, contact law enforcement beforehand if possible. And though you may be legally allowed to seize the suspect physically, it's best to try to verbally convince the suspect to stay until law enforcement arrives. 

Understand that making a citizen's arrest can also have severe legal implications for you. The law is complex, and it's possible for someone making a citizen's arrest to unwittingly violate someone's rights. It is also possible individuals attempting a citizen's arrest may face a civil suit after the fact for various issues, including false imprisonment, assault or battery. Simply put, it's best in the vast majority of cases to leave arrests to law enforcement.

citizens arrestBy Joe Veenstra, Criminal Defense Lawyer at Johns, Flaherty & Collins. For a criminal defense attorney in La Crosse, contact him at 608-784-5678.



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