Penal Code § 837 PC permits you to make a citizen’s arrest if you witness a misdemeanor or felony crime in California or have reasonable cause to believe someone has committed a felony To do so, you must inform the person you are arresting and provide a reason for the arrest.
Just because the law allows for citizen’s arrests does not necessarily mean it is a good idea. In fact, it is almost always better to contact the police and let them handle the situation.
The language of the code section reads as follows:
Penal Code 837 – A private person may arrest another:
1. For a public offense committed or attempted in his presence.
2. When the person arrested has committed a felony, although not in his presence.
3. When a felony has been in fact committed, and he has reasonable cause for believing the person arrested to have committed it.
A few examples of a lawful citizen’s arrest include:
- Mark grabs a guy at a bar, after he unsuccessfully throws a beer bottle at a patron, and tells him he is arresting him for assault (per PC 240).
- upon seeing a prostitute solicit services on the street, Lou calls 9-1-1, stops the prostitute, and informs her she is under arrest for solicitation (per PC 647(b)).
- while shopping in a department store, Riley stops another woman after observing her put a blouse in her purse and tells her she is arrested for shoplifting (per PC 459.5).
A wrongful arrest (“false arrest”) could lead to civil and/or criminal charges.
Our California criminal defense attorneys will discuss the following in this article:
- 1. What are the grounds for a citizen’s arrest?
- 2. Can I make a citizen’s arrest in California?
- 3. What safety precautions should be taken into consideration?
- 4. What are the consequences of a wrongful citizen’s arrest?
1. What are the grounds for a citizen’s arrest?
Under Penal Code 837 PC, you may arrest a perpetrator in the following circumstances:
- the perpetrator commits, or attempts to commit, a misdemeanor offense in your presence; and/or
- you know, directly or indirectly, that the perpetrator committed a felony; and/or
- a felony has been committed and you have reasonable cause for believing the perpetrator committed it.1
If you decide to arrest another person, you can either
- do so on your own, or
- lawfully ask others to help you in the arrest.2
2. Can I make a citizen’s arrest in California?
California courts have recommended that you follow certain procedures when making these arrests, such as:
- inform the suspect that you intend to arrest them;
- set forth the cause of the arrest;
- if possible, indicate your authority to make the arrest; and,
- if applicable, inform the suspect that you called the police.3
You should try to make an arrest as soon as possible. If there is a delay in an arrest, you will lose the authority to arrest another person.4
3. What safety precautions should be taken into consideration?
3.1. Avoid the use of force
Try to avoid using force when making an arrest, or minimize the amount of force that is used. If you use an unwarranted amount of force in making an arrest, or an excessive amount of force, you may expose yourself to civil or criminal liability.
Legally, you can use reasonable force to arrest a perpetrator. Whether or not the amount of force used is “reasonable” is a determination based upon all of the facts in a given case.
3.2. Consider everyone’s safety
If you decide to make an arrest, you should look after
- your own safety and
- the safety of the person you are arresting (if possible).
Towards this end, you should try to:
- keep the perpetrator out of harm’s way (such as in a secluded location),
- contact 9-1-1 as early as possible in making the arrest and keep the operator on the phone until police officers have arrived, and
- ask for the arrestee’s cooperation.
Sometimes a suspect may attempt to run away after you try to make an arrest. If this happens, you can use reasonable force to prevent the suspect from fleeing. However, safety considerations should still be given to them.
3.3. Don’t be a hero
In particular, you should not:
- ignore the safety of yourself or others,
- attempt to search the arrestee, and
- pursue the perpetrator on risky or dangerous chases (either on foot or in a car).
In addition, you should try to get law enforcement officers involved as soon as possible once you initiate an arrest. This includes:
- contacting 9-1-1,
- informing authorities as to location, and
- providing police with a description of the arrestee.
4. What are the consequences of a wrongful citizen’s arrest?
Both civil liability and criminal liability can be imposed if you made an arrest and:
- the person arrested did not commit a crime;
- there was no reasonable cause for believing the arrestee committed a crime; and/or,
- you used too much force in the arrest.
4.1. Civil liability
Civil liability means that an arrestee could sue you in civil court and attempt to recover certain damages that resulted in the unlawful arrest.
These “damages” could include:
- compensatory damages (such as medical bills, lost wages, lost earning capacity, and pain and suffering); and/or,
- punitive damages.
4.2. Criminal liability
Criminal liability means that either, in addition to a civil action, or as a separate proceeding, the State of California can file criminal charges against you if you made an unlawful arrest.
Charges that typically result from an unlawful citizen’s arrest include:
- assault and battery, per PC 242;
- false imprisonment, per PC 236 and 237; and/or,
- kidnapping, per PC 207.
The penalties for these offenses could result in:
- misdemeanor or felony charges,
- jail time, and
- substantial fines.
- California Penal Code section 837 PC. See, for example, Baker v. Ensign (S.D. Cal. Aug. 29, 2014), 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 122821.
- People v. Campbell (1972), 27 Cal. App. 3d 849; Martinez-Rodriguez v. Bank of Am. (N.D. Cal. Mar. 21, 2012), 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 38499.
- People v. Boss (1930), 210 Cal. 245.
- Hill v. Levy (1953), 117 Cal. App. 2d 667.