What Is A Citizen’s Arrest?

Posted: 30 May, 2023.

Citizen’s arrest is a term that you may have heard before, but do you know what it really means? In the UK a citizen’s arrest, also known as an arrest without warrant, is made when a member of the public who is not acting as a law-enforcement official, apprehends a suspect and detains them until the police arrive to formally arrest them. This may be necessary in situations where a person is behaving in a violent or aggressive manner, causing a threat to themselves or the safety of others around them.

Legally anyone can carry out a citizen’s arrest, but there are a number of guidelines you must follow when doing so to avoid getting into trouble yourself.

Legal guidelines

Section 24A of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (PACE) states that an individual can perform an arrest on somebody they suspect of committing an indictable offence. This applies to serious offences that must be tried in a Crown Court, for example, assault, burglary, murder, manslaughter, terrorism, trafficking, rape or criminal damage worth over £5000.

This means that you cannot perform a citizen’s arrest on someone committing a summary offence, such as road traffic offences, minor assaults, or minor criminal damage. The act states that you can arrest somebody to prevent them from:

• Causing physical injury to themselves or someone else
• Suffering a physical injury
• Causing loss or damage to property
• Attempting to escape before a Police officer is able to assume responsibility of them

Civilians also have a common law ‘power of arrest’ where there is a breach of peace or if there are reasonable grounds to suggest there may be a breach of peace. In these circumstances, an arrest can be conducted if:

  • (a) a breach of the peace is committed in the person effecting the arrest’s presence,
  • (b) the person effecting the arrest reasonably believes that such a breach will be committed in the immediate future by the person arrested, or
  • (c) a breach of the peace has been committed or the person effecting the arrest reasonably believes that a breach of the peace has occurred and that a further breach is threatened.

In any circumstance, it’s vital to make certain you have an appropriate reason to make the arrest, as arresting someone who is found innocent can leave you open to being charged with unlawful arrest or false imprisonment.

Reasonable Force

When carrying out a citizen’s arrest, you are allowed to use reasonable force to detain the person being arrested. However, it is crucial not to exceed what is considered ‘reasonable.’ Section 3 of the Criminal Law Act 1967 states that “A person may use such force as is reasonable in the circumstances in the prevention of crime, or in effecting or assisting in the lawful arrest of offenders or suspected offenders or of persons unlawfully at large.”.

In the UK there is no specific definition of ‘reasonable force’ as it depends on what is deemed necessary under the individual circumstance. However, guidance from the Crown Prosecution Service states that “If you only did what you honestly thought was necessary at the time, this would provide strong evidence that you acted within the law.”.

Using reasonable force you can:

  • protect yourself ‘in the heat of the moment’ – this includes using an object as a weapon
  • stop an intruder running off – for example by tackling them to the ground

However, you could be prosecuted if, for example, you:

  • attack the individual even if you’re no longer in danger
  • pre-plan a trap for someone – rather than involve the police

An example of using reasonable force would be grabbing and holding onto someone to stop them from attacking another person. In this case, it would be reasonable to restrain them by holding them down to the ground to stop them from hurting anyone else or escaping while waiting for the police to arrive. However, if you were to respond by attacking the person once they have been restrained and the threat is no longer present, this would be unreasonable and you could be charged with assault.

When determining if your level of force is reasonable, two useful questions to ask yourself are:

  • was it necessary?
  • was it proportionate to the threat?

How to make a citizen’s arrest

1. Decide whether to make an arrest

It’s only advisable to make a citizen’s arrest if you’ve personally seen a crime being committed as you will need to provide details to the police when they arrive to take responsibility of the individual. When deciding to make an arrest, you should also consider if there are any professionals nearby who could take over instead. If you attempt to arrest somebody and an officer is present, you should only do this if they cannot reasonably perform the arrest themselves.

2. Assess the safety of the situation

Before performing a citizen’s arrest, you should evaluate whether you can restrain the individual and if it is safe for you to do so. You should also consider if they could be concealing a weapon. If you attempt a citizen’s arrest and are unable to restrain the individual, the situation could escalate and lead them to become aggressive towards you. If you suspect this may be the case, you should prioritise your own safety and not attempt an arrest.

If possible, you should ask someone else to assist you. This will aid in restraining the individual if needed and will provide a witness to back up your side of the story.

3. Gather evidence

Where possible, take photos or videos of the crime before intervening. This will act as evidence and support your reasons for arresting the individual in question. This evidence may also be critical in prosecuting the individual if this case goes further.

4. Explain what you are doing and why

When performing a citizen’s arrest, it’s vital to inform the person you are arresting of:

  • who you are,
  • the fact you’re performing a citizen’s arrest, and
  • why you are doing this, including the crime you suspect them of committing.

There is no need for specific wording like the police use when placing someone under arrest. Explain that you will be contacting the police, if you haven’t done so already, and that you will be restraining them until the police arrive. You should ask for their cooperation and explain that you are permitted to use reasonable force.

At this point the individual may become frustrated and aggressive, so you should remain calm and try to de-escalate the situation as much as possible.

5. Contact the Police

Once the situation is under control, you should contact the police immediately. If you are unable to call for help yourself, you should call out to a member of the public to do this for you.

If you have a personal safety service, such as Peoplesafe, you can raise an alarm via the SOS button as an easier alternative to dialling 999. An Alarm Controller in our ARC will then receive the call, allowing you to use the two-way audio to inform them of the situation. The expertly trained Controller will then be able to use your GPS location to contact the nearest police force, bypassing 999 and getting the fastest response possible.

When the police arrive, you must let them know what crime you suspect the individual has committed, what you saw regarding the incident and the actions you carried out during the arrest. If you were able to gather any evidence, you should inform the police of this and present it to them. You may also be required to provide this information in a formal statement or appear as a witness in court if the individual is prosecuted.

6. Do not question the suspect

It’s beyond your rights and responsibilities to attempt to search or question the suspect, your only purpose is to detain them until the police arrive. Avoid asking questions or getting further involved in the situation as this could increase the risk to yourself.

Always remember:

  • Only ever use reasonable force – going beyond this could put you in a dangerous situation
  • Using excessive force can lead to you being accused of assault
  • When performing a citizen’s arrest, you are not permitted to use handcuffs
  • Citizens do not have the same powers of arrest as the Police
  • Be aware of the legalities – incorrectly arresting someone could mean you are prosecuted for unlawful arrest or false imprisonment

Most importantly, you should consider your own safety and never attempt to arrest someone if this puts you at serious risk of harm, even if the suspected criminal has the chance to escape. Instead, call 999 and leave the search and arrest to the professionals.

If you encounter situations where you are faced with aggressive behaviour on a regular basis, it’s advisable to carry a personal safety alarm for your own protection. One of the key benefits of personal safety alarms is that they allow audio, and sometimes video, evidence to be recorded, which can be used as evidence in court if required. Find out more about personal safety devices.

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