What is a citizen’s arrest?
A citizen’s arrest is a physical arrest made by a regular person who is not a sworn law enforcement official, nor are they acting as one. The practice of making a citizen’s arrest dates back to medieval England and English common law, when sheriffs encouraged ordinary citizens to help apprehend criminals in an effort to help control crime.
Despite being called citizens arrest, the arresting person (the person who is conducting the citizen’s arrest) is usually considered to be any person with arrest powers, who need not be a citizen of the jurisdiction in which they are acting.
Citizen’s arrests are an uncommon practice in current times. However, with the heightened threat of terrorism, many citizens are more watchful and willing to take action to prevent a terrorist act, especially on commercial airline flights. In these situations, many people are willing to take the necessary action to prevent the crime from occurring, rather than attempting to make a formal citizen’s arrest.
The person who is suspected of committing a crime is detained in some way and held until law enforcement officials or police officers arrive on the scene.
Barney Fife helped to make the term famous on an episode of Andy Griffith when the actor yelled, “Citizen’s Arrest! Citizen’s Arrest!”. It is highly unlikely that you will hear someone use the phrase today, other than in jest.
For more legal definitions, visit our Glossary of Legal and Investigation Terms.