CRS § 16-3-201 is the Colorado statute that allows you to make a citizen’s arrest, but only if you actually witness the crime taking place. Making an unlawful citizen’s arrest could result in criminal charges for
- aggravated assault,
- false imprisonment or
- even kidnapping.
Citizen’s arrests are largely a relic of the old Wild West when it was up to ordinary civilians to uphold the law, but they still happen.
The law in CRS 16-3-201 states that:
“A person who is not a peace officer may arrest another person when any crime has been or is being committed by the arrested person in the presence of the person making the arrest.”
- Jim sees Jerry grab an old lady’s purse. Jim tackles Jerry and throws him to the ground. This is a legal arrest because Jim saw the robbery.
- Frank sees a commotion in a store. Someone says a man is robbing the store, so Frank tackles him. This too is a legal arrest because the robbery was ongoing at the time of the arrest.
A successful legal defense can mitigate the penalties of a conviction. Or it can lead to an acquittal or force the charges to be dropped. Common defenses include that you were:
- Acting out of necessity,
- Acting in self-defense or defense of another, or
- Helping a police officer.
The penalties for violating CRS 16-3-201 depend on what happened. You could face such charges as:
- First-degree assault (CRS 18-3-202)
- Second-degree assault (CRS 18-3-203)
- False imprisonment (CRS 18-3-303)
- Kidnapping (CRS 18-3-301 and CRS 18-3-302)
- Impersonating a peace officer (CRS 18-8-112)
You could also face a civil lawsuit by the arrested person.
Below, our Denver Colorado criminal defense attorneys will explain:
- 1. When can I make a citizen’s arrest in Colorado?
- 2. What are common legal defenses to a charge under CRS 16-3-201?
- 3. What are the penalties for making an illegal citizen’s arrest in Colorado?
- 4. What offenses are related to CRS 16-3-201?
1. When can I make a citizen’s arrest in Colorado?
Colorado Revised Statute 16-3-201 expressly allows you as a private citizen to make a citizen’s arrest if a crime happens in your presence. You can use reasonable force while making this arrest.
The law immunizes you from criminal charges and civil liability that would typically follow from the force you used to make the arrest.
CRS 16-3-203 states:
“Any person who is not a peace officer as defined in section 24-31-301 (5), C.R.S., who is made the defendant in any civil action as a result of having sought to prevent a crime being committed against any other person, and who has judgment entered in his favor shall be entitled to all his court costs and to reasonable attorney fees incurred in such action.”
Public policy relies on “Good Samaritans” enforcing the law when peace officers cannot. If not for civil immunity, people may be too afraid to make a citizen’s arrest out of fear of lawsuits.
1.1 What does it mean to be in the presence of the citizen?
CRS 16-3-201 allows for you to make a citizen’s arrest only if a crime was committed in your presence.
A crime is considered to be in your presence if you can directly see or sense it. It is also in your presence if there is probable cause to suggest the crime is ongoing or just completed. Or as the Colorado Supreme Court stated, “The ‘in presence’ requirement is met if the arrestor observes acts which are in themselves sufficiently indicative of a crime in the course of commission.”1
- David is in the lobby of a police station. Ray gets away from the police and runs, which is a Colorado crime. David hears someone yelling “stop that man!” and tackles him in a fight.
- A security guard sees Roseanne leaving with a large coat covering a computer. The guard tells her to sit down and keeps her from leaving. He calls the police.2
You cannot make a citizen’s arrest if the crime happened outside of your presence:
Example: Ken and his son learn that their neighbor sells controlled substances. They break into his apartment, put handcuffs on him, and bring him to the police. This is an illegal citizen’s arrest because Ken and his son did not witness the drug sale.3
1.2 Does the law apply to off-duty police officers?
Anyone who is not an on-duty police officer is considered a private citizen. This means off-duty police officers can make citizen’s arrests. It also means a law enforcement officer outside their own jurisdiction can make a citizen’s arrest.
Example: Ralph is an undercover peace officer with the Boulder Police Department. He arrests a store owner for buying stolen items. Ralph does not realize that the store is 12 feet over the town line. The arrest is a citizen’s arrest under CRS 16-3-201.4
1.3 How much force can be used while making a citizen’s arrest?
You can use non-deadly force to make a citizen’s arrest under Colorado law. However, this amount of force has to be reasonable and appropriate to the situation. It cannot be more than what is reasonably believed necessary to make the arrest or prevent an escape.5
CRS 18-1-707(7) states:
“A private person acting on his own account is justified in using reasonable and appropriate physical force upon another person when and to the extent that he reasonably believes it necessary to effect an arrest, or to prevent the escape from custody of an arrested person who has committed an offense in his presence; but he is justified in using deadly physical force for the purpose only when he reasonably believes it necessary to defend himself or a third person from what he reasonably believes to be the use or imminent use of deadly physical force.”
Therefore, you can only use deadly force to make a citizen’s arrest in very rare cases. You have to reasonably think deadly physical force is necessary to defend yourself or someone else from deadly harm.
Example: David is standing in the lobby of the police station when Ray runs past. David hears someone shout “stop that man!” Rather than running after Ray, David draws a pistol and shoots him. David’s citizen’s arrest has used excessive force.
2. What are common legal defenses to a charge under CRS 16-3-201?
Some of the most common ways to fight allegations of illegal citizen’s arrests in Colorado are to show:
- You acted out of necessity,
- You acted out of self-defense or for the defense of someone else, and
- You were acting under the direction of a police officer.
There may be other legal defenses. It depends on the specific charges.
A common defense to an accusation of a wrongful citizen’s arrest is that you acted out of necessity.
To prove a defense of necessity, you have to show the wrongful citizen’s arrest was only to prevent a worse thing from happening. This requires evidence that demonstrates:
- There was a risk of imminent harm that you did not cause,
- You acted to prevent that harm, and
- You had no other legal options.6
2.2 Self-defense or the defense of someone else
A wrongful citizen’s arrest is justified if done in lawful self-defense. Or defense of others. Proving this requires evidence that:
- You reasonably thought the person was about to use unlawful force, and
- You used only as much force as reasonably necessary to protect against that force
As CRS 18-1-704 states:
“[A] person is justified in using physical force upon another person in order to defend himself or a third person from what he reasonably believes to be the use or imminent use of unlawful physical force by that other person, and he may use a degree of force which he reasonably believes to be necessary for that purpose.”
When determining whether self-defense is justified, jurors are instructed to look at the totality of the circumstances and consider what a reasonable person would do in the same situation.7
(The only difference between self-defense and the defense of others is whom you thought was about to get hurt.)
2.3 Helping a police officer
A police officer can command you to help make an arrest under CRS 16-3-202. When this happens, CRS 16-3-202(3) makes you immune to a criminal charge or civil lawsuit for following the police’s direction.
CRS 16-3-202 states:
(1) A peace officer making an arrest may command the assistance of any person who is in the vicinity.
(2) A person commanded to assist a peace officer has the same authority to arrest as the officer who commands his assistance.
(3) A person commanded to assist a peace officer in making an arrest shall not be civilly or criminally liable for any reasonable conduct in aid of the officer or for any acts expressly directed by the officer.
(4) Private citizens, acting in good faith, shall be immune from any civil liability for reporting to any police officer or law enforcement authority the commission or suspected commission of any crime or for giving other information to aid in the prevention of any crime.8
Note that the city of Denver has an ordinance (38-38) requiring people to aid police officers:
“It shall be the duty of all persons, when called upon by any police officer, member of the police department, or person duly empowered with police authority, promptly to aid and assist such officer, member or person in the discharge of their duties.” 9
3. What are the penalties for making an illegal citizen’s arrest in Colorado?
There are no penalties for violating CRS 16-3-201 and making a wrongful citizen’s arrest. However, other criminal charges can be filed against you for an incorrect citizen’s arrest. You can also be sued by the person you arrested.
The penalties for these criminal charges can be significant. They can include thousands of dollars in fines and years in jail.
Example: George punches Mike during a citizen’s arrest for a robbery. However, the crime was not committed in George’s presence. George gets charged with first-degree assault and false imprisonment.
If a wrongly arrested person files a civil lawsuit, you may have to pay thousands of dollars in compensation, as well.
4. What offenses are related to CRS 16-3-201?
Violating CRS 16-3-201 often comes with other criminal charges related to the wrongful arrest:
4.1 First-degree assault
The most common criminal charge related to a wrongful citizen’s arrest is first-degree assault.
First-degree assault (CRS 18-3-202) makes it illegal to intentionally and seriously hurt someone. Making a citizen’s arrest is something you do intentionally. Therefore, any serious injuries you inflict during the arrest can amount to assault in the first degree.
Also see our article on menacing (CRS 18-3-206), a.k.a. battery.
4.2 Second-degree assault
Another very common related offense is second-degree assault.
Second-degree assault (CRS 18-3-203) makes it illegal to intentionally hurt someone. Unlike assault in the first degree, though, it does not involve serious injuries. If you hurt the person you were trying to arrest, you can face second-degree assault charges if the injuries you caused were not serious.
4.3 False imprisonment
Wrongful citizen’s arrests often lead to criminal charges for false imprisonment.
False imprisonment (CRS 18-3-303) makes it illegal to detain someone without their consent. If you trap, hold down, or detain the person you were arresting, it can lead to a charge of false imprisonment.
Example: Ken and his son wrongly arrest their neighbor for a robbery. After breaking into the neighbor’s apartment and handcuffing him, they decide to wait for the police to arrive. Ken and his son committed a false arrest.
If you wrongly make a citizen’s arrest and move the suspect to a new place, you can be charged with kidnapping.
Colorado’s laws against kidnapping (CRS 18-3-301 and CRS 18-3-302) are similar to false imprisonment laws. However, kidnapping makes it illegal to detain and then move someone without their consent.
Example: Ken and his son conduct a wrongful citizen’s arrest on their neighbor. They break into his apartment and handcuff him. Then they force him into their car and bring him to the police.
4.5 Impersonating a peace officer
If you make a citizen’s arrest, you can be charged with impersonating a peace officer (CRS 18-8-112) if you falsely pretend to be the police. A class 6 felony, this crime carries up to 18 months in prison.
- People v. Olguin, (1974) 528 P.2d 234.
- Same; Schiffner v. People, (Colorado Supreme Court, 1970) 476 P.2d 756.
- People v. Joyce, (Colo. App. 2002) 68 P.3d 521.
- People v. Wolf, (1981) 635 P.2d 213.
- CRS 18-1-707(7).
- See CRS § 18-1-702 and People v. Speer, (2011) 255 P.3d 1115.
- People v. Ferrell, (1980) 200 Colo. 128, 613 P.2d 324.
- CRS 16-3-202.
- Denver Code of Ordinances Revised Municipal 38-38. Duty of citizens to aid police officers. Note that CRS 18-8-107 (Refusing to aid a peace officer) is repealed as of March 1, 2022. SB21-271.