How to Make a Citizen's Arrest in California

A citizen's arrest is an arrest made by a citizen who has no official arrest authority because he is not a law enforcement personnel or a governmental agent.

Penal Code 837 PC is the California statute that authorizes a citizen's arrest in certain circumstances. These include when a perpetrator:

  1. commits a misdemeanor in a citizen's presence; and/or,
  2. commits a felony and a citizen has reasonable cause for believing the perpetrator committed it.

A few examples of 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 a 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 tell her she is arrested for shoplifting (per PC 459.5).

If a citizen decides to make a lawful arrest, there are certain procedures California law recommends the citizen to follow. Some include for the citizen to:

  • inform the arrestee that he is under arrest,
  • give the reason for the arrest, and
  • express the authority for making the arrest.

Citizens should exercise care if they decide to make an arrest. A wrongful arrest could lead to civil and/or criminal charges. Possible criminal charges include:

Our California criminal defense attorneys will highlight the following in this article:

citizens arrest california
A citizen's arrest is an arrest made by a citizen who has no official arrest authority because he is not a law enforcement personnel or a governmental agent.

1. The legal definition of a citizen's arrest under Penal Code 837

Penal Code 837 PC is the California statute that authorizes a citizen's arrest.

Under PC 837, a citizen may arrest a perpetrator when:

  1. the perpetrator commits, or attempts to commit, a misdemeanor offense in the citizen's presence;
  2. the citizen knows, directly or indirectly, that the perpetrator committed a felony; and/or,
  3. a felony has been committed and the citizen has reasonable cause for believing the perpetrator committed it.1

In terms of misdemeanor offenses vs. felonies, please note that misdemeanors are less severe crimes than felonies.

A few examples of a California misdemeanor include:

A few examples of a California felony include:

Please also note that if a citizen decides to arrest another person, the citizen can either do so on his own, or he can lawfully ask others to help him in the arrest.2

2. Procedures a citizen should follow when making an arrest

In analyzing cases involving citizen's arrests, California courts have recommended that private persons follow certain procedures when making these arrests. Some of the procedures include:

  1. the citizen should inform a person that he intends to arrest him;
  2. the citizen should set forth the cause of the arrest;
  3. if possible, the citizen should indicate the authority to make the arrest; and,
  4. if applicable, the citizen should inform the perpetrator that he has called the police.3

Further, in making an arrest, a citizen must comply with certain timing requirements. This means he should try to make an arrest as soon as possible. If there is a delay in an arrest, the citizen will lose the authority to arrest another person.4

3. Safety considerations when performing a PC 837 arrest

A citizen's arrest is not without risks and dangers. This means private persons should exercise safety considerations if they decide to make an arrest. These considerations include:

  1. avoid the use of force,
  2. consider the safety of the perpetrator, and
  3. don't be a hero.

3.1. Avoid the use of force

A citizen should try to avoid using force when making an arrest or minimize the amount of force that is used. If a citizen uses an unwarranted amount of force in making an arrest, or an excessive amount of force, he may expose himself to civil or criminal liability.

Please note, however, that a citizen 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 the safety of the perpetrator

If a citizen decides to make an arrest, he should look after his own safety and the safety of the person he is arresting (if possible).

Towards this end, the citizen should try to:

  • keep the perpetrator out of harm's way (e.g., 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 have arrived, and
  • ask for the arrestee's cooperation.

Please note that sometimes a person may attempt to run away after a citizen tries to make an arrest. If this happens, the citizen can use reasonable force to prevent the person from fleeing. However, safety considerations should still be given to the perpetrator.

danger gun
Citizens should avoid trying to be heroes if they decide to make an arrest.

3.3. Don't be a hero

Citizens should avoid trying to be heroes if they decide to make an arrest. This is for the best interests of all parties.

In particular, a citizen should not:

  • ignore the safety of himself 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, a citizen should try to get police involved as soon as possible once he initiates an arrest. This includes:

  • contacting 9-1-1,
  • informing authorities as to location, and
  • providing police with a description of the arrestee.

4. Consequences of a wrongful citizen's arrest

A wrongful citizen's arrest can lead to two serious consequences. These are:

  1. civil liability; and/or,
  2. criminal liability.

Both can be imposed if a citizen made an arrest and:

  1. the person arrested did not commit a crime;
  2. there was no reasonable cause for believing the arrestee committed a crime; and/or,
  3. the citizen used too much force in the arrest.

4.1. Civil liability

Civil liability means that an arrestee could sue a citizen in civil court and attempt to recover certain damages that resulted in the unlawful arrest.

These “damages” could include:

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 a citizen if he made un unlawful arrest.

Criminal charges that typically result from an unlawful citizen's arrest include charges of:

  • 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.

Were you accused of making an unlawful citizen's arrest in California? Call us for help…

california legal aid citizen's arrest
Call us for help at (855) LAW-FIRM

If you or someone you know has made an unlawful citizen's arrest in violation of Penal Code 837, we invite you to contact us for a free consultation. We can be reached 24/7 at 855-LawFirm.

In Nevada? See our article about how to make a citizen's arrest in Nevada (NRS 171.126).


Legal References:

  1. California Penal Code 837 PC. This code section states: “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.”

  2. People v. Campbell (1972), 27 Cal. App. 3d 849.

  3. People v. Boss (1930), 210 Cal. 245.

  4. Hill v. Levy (1953), 117 Cal. App. 2d 667.

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