DIY Law Enforcement

Citizen’s arrest is no joke, as fans of The Andy Griffith Show can attest. In a memorable 1963 episode, Barney Fife issued Gomer Pyle a ticket for making an illegal U-turn, and then, as Fife was wont to do, began philosophizing. “It’s from little misdemeanors that major felonies grow,” Fife said, adding that even citizens have the responsibility to stop crime. “You’ll be a better man,” he told Pyle, “if you try to think of us all working together for a common cause.” At that, Fife left the scene, making a U-turn himself. That’s when Pyle ran after him, yelling, “Citizen’s ar-ray-est! Citizen’s ar-ray-est!”

It may come as a surprise that, in the Twin Cities, regular people issue citizen’s arrests all the time. Statistics are hard to come by—both the Minneapolis and St. Paul police departments threw up their hands—but it’s pretty safe to say that there are hundreds in the metropolitan area each year. The bulk of these citations are issued by “loss-prevention” officers, store staff who skulk after shoplifters. The rest, around a quarter of the total, are made by the public at large, usually for minor offenses such as littering, open bottle, and public urination.

Minnesota has a rather generous citizen’s arrest law. It affords a private person the right to arrest another for any misdemeanor or felony committed in their presence, and for felonies not committed in their presence (amateur felony busts are extremely rare). If the target flees, the citizen may engage in a hot pursuit. “For that purpose,” says the law, “the pursuer may break open any door or window of a dwelling house if … the pursuer is refused admittance.”

The right of one person to arrest another dates back to medieval England, when sheriffs encouraged people to make their own collars. Tom Walsh, the St. Paul Police Department’s Public Information Coordinator and an officer for thirty years, is very much in favor of the practice. “There is always the element of, ‘I don’t want to get involved,’” he said. “Police departments like to see people held accountable for their actions. We are in favor of citizen’s arrest. It works.”

Such arrests are made by organizations like the Guardian Angels. According to Minneapolis chapter spokesperson Alice Splawn, her group is learning about the statute in anticipation of a brand-new effort: riding city buses at night in hopes of quelling violent crime. “Our plan,” Splawn said, “is if there is a weapon, we would have somebody notify the driver immediately so he could stop the bus. We are not there to get shot or knifed, but we would try to detain the individual until help arrives. That would be citizen’s arrest, because we are not allowing them to leave.”

“This is a great tool that is grossly overlooked by citizens,” said Minneapolis police officer Mike Killebrew, who last year championed an effort to restrict pedestrian traffic in the city’s alleyways. “The police can only do so much and citizens have to pick up the slack.” Before attempting to pick up the slack, however, there are a few sticky matters to consider. First, by statute, you must inform your target why you are arresting them and “require the person to submit.” Then, the arrestee must be delivered to a judge or peace officer “without unnecessary delay.”

In the likely case that the target doesn’t wish to be arrested, Walsh explained that “you may use force sufficient to detain that person until they can be turned over to law enforcement.” The key is to keep your cool. Don’t go overboard, he advises, lest you find yourself “on the dark side of a lawsuit or in a physical altercation you can’t win. You have to be sure that the amount of force you’re applying fits a misdemeanor crime.” He added, “You can’t use deadly force.”

If a situation gets too contentious, don’t make the arrest. “I’m not suggesting that you walk away,” Walsh said. “On the contrary. I’m suggesting that you call the police. Walking away in my view is not a satisfactory option.” Get a good description of the individual, and a license plate number. Follow them if you can, preferably while filming with a digital camera. Killebrew heartily concurred: “You don’t want your mouth to write a check that your body can’t cover.”

Once the police arrive, you will be asked to complete a form explaining the arrest and stating that you will testify under oath. Making an ill-advised citizen’s arrest—or causing one to go wildly awry—can lead to civil and even criminal penalties. There are laws against assault, false imprisonment, and impersonating an officer. It is not recommended, for example, that you read anyone a Miranda warning, even if you’ve seen it done on television. “You are not a police officer,” said Walsh. “You are not required to give Miranda, nor can you allow a person to waive their rights.” Finally, whatever you do, do not wear a blue outfit with a hat and badge.