Citizen's Arrest

Citizen’s Arrest: Not Just a Dramatic or Comic Tool

Like most people, your main exposure to the term “citizen’s arrest” may be through references in TV and movies, such as filmmaker Michael Moore’s amusing “attempt” to arrest AIG executives in the wake of the global financial meltdown a few years back.  However, a citizen’s arrest is actually perfectly legal and effective, under certain circumstances.

In Minnesota, an “arrest” means taking a person into custody so that the person may be held to answer for a public offense, which may be done through either restraint or simple submission by the arrestee.

Minn. Stat. § 629.37 allows a private person to make an arrest in three circumstances:

(1) for a public offense committed or attempted in the arresting person’s presence;

(2) when the person arrested has committed a felony, although not necessarily in the arresting person’s presence; or

(3) when a felony has in fact been committed, and the arresting person has reasonable cause for believing the person arrested to have committed it.

A “public offense” includes all violations punishable by fine or imprisonment, including petty misdemeanors.

By Minnesota statute, a person who has made a citizen’s arrest must take the arrested person before a judge or to a peace officer “without unnecessary delay.”  If the person arrested escapes, the arrestor may immediately pursue and retake the escapee, at any time and in any place in the state.  For that purpose, the pursuer may even break into a dwelling if the pursuer informs the escapee of his intent to arrest and the pursuer is refused admittance.  However, in State v. Horner, 617 N.W.2d 789 (Minn. 2000), the Minnesota Supreme Court held that citizens are not authorized to conduct investigations—such as field sobriety tests—after observing a public offense committed in the citizen’s presence. 

On a related note, a private person is required to participate in making an arrest under certain circumstances.  For example, when a peace officer requests, a private person must aid the officer in executing a warrant.  Also, if a judge lawfully directs that a person arrest another, it is a misdemeanor to willfully neglect or refuse to do so.  Similarly, a person is guilty of a misdemeanor if he willfully neglects or refuses to aid a peace officer after being “lawfully directed” to aid the officer in making an arrest, retaking a person who has escaped from custody, or executing a legal process.

Even equipped with the above knowledge, one should think twice before launching into a voluntary citizen’s arrest.  Of course, personal and public safety should be significant concerns.  Further, arrests later found to be unlawful can subject the unwitting citizen to criminal or civil liability for false imprisonment.