You’ve seen it in the movies, at some point or another. Some concerned denizen witnesses a crime in action, civic dutifully leaping to action and apprehending the brigand. “Citizen’s arrest,” they shout, holding the (alleged) perp against a wall or the ground and waiting for the authorities to arrive.
A citizen’s arrest is one made by a person who is not a sworn law-enforcement official. The practice dates back to Medieval England, where sheriffs actively encouraged ordinary men and women to help capture those breaking the law.
It’s important to remember that anyone making a citizen’s arrest does so at personal risk; beyond the dangers involved, you would expose yourself to lawsuits and criminal charges, such as false imprisonment, unlawful restraint, kidnapping, and wrongful arrest. You risk violating a person’s civil rights. It is not something to do lightly.
Making an arrest
First and foremost, it’s important to actually leave it to the professionals when it comes to policing criminals. Members of an Garda Siochána are trained in how to approach and apprehend, and upstanding officers can be trusted to follow the letter of the law.
But the Gardaí aren’t always around and should you find yourself in a position where you are witnessing a crime taking place, remember that the most important thing is to not put yourself in danger.
In fact, the best thing to do in such an instance, providing you have a safe vantage point, is to take out your smartphone and record video or take photographs of the crime in action, after calling the authorities to alert them to it taking place. Evidence that can help convict a criminal is a citizen’s greatest weapon, and making a citizen’s arrest should only be a last resort.
What can you legally do?
That said, legally any person can arrest a person who they have reasonable cause to believe is in the act of committing or has previously committed an arrestable offence, which is to say a crime punishable by more than five years in prison.
For those unfamiliar with Irish statute books, that means crimes such as possession of a firearm with intent to endanger life, assist or aid escape, or (the dubiously defined) in suspicious circumstances. Should you find someone shortening the barrel of a shotgun or rifle, which would land them five years in the big house, that could technically merit an ‘any person arrest’, though again, personal safety is more important than personal heroics.
Legally, you also need to have reasonable belief that the person you would be apprehending would try to avoid capture by Gardaí, and once in your hands need to get him or her to Garda custody as soon as possible.
By the book
Under section 4(1) of The Criminal Law Act 1997, any person may arrest, without a warrant, a person suspected of being in the act of committing an arrestable offence, with section 4(2) covers a person you suspect guilty of having already carried it out.
Citizen’s arrest laws vary all over the world, even differing within states in federal countries. In China, for instance, anyone can arrest a wanted person, someone who has escaped incarceration, or who is being pursued for capture. But in Mexico and many other, you can only find your inner Federale should you witness the crime in flagrante delicto, meaning while it is taking place.
All in all, while making a citizen’s arrest is possible, it is largely inadvisable. The best thing to do when witnessing a crime is alert the Gardaí and capture as much video and photographic evidence as you can without endangering yourself.