CRS 16-3-201 is the Colorado statute that allows people to make a citizen’s arrest, but only if they 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.
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 they can also lead to an acquittal or force the charges to be dropped. Common defenses include that the defendant was:
- 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. Defendants 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)
The defendant could also face a civil lawsuit by the arrested person.
Below our Denver Colorado criminal defense attorneys explain citizen’s arrest laws:
- 1. When can one 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 violating CRS 16-3-201?
- 4. What offenses are related to citizen’s arrest charges?
1. When can a person make a citizen’s arrest in Colorado?
Colorado Revised Statute 16-3-201 expressly allows people who are not police officers to make a citizen’s arrest if a crime happens in their presence. They can use reasonable force while making this arrest.
The law immunizes private people from criminal charges and civil liability that would typically follow from the force they used making 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 it were 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 only allows for a citizen’s arrest if a crime was committed in the presence of the person making the arrest.
A crime is considered to be in the presence of citizens if they can directly see or sense it. It is also in a citizen’s 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
Examples of a crime happening in the presence of a citizen include:
- 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
An example of a crime happening outside the citizen’s presence is:
- 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.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 his or her 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?
A private person can use non-deadly force to make a citizen’s arrest under Colorado law. This amount of force has to be reasonable and appropriate to the situation, though. It cannot be more than what is reasonably believed to be 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, a private person can only use deadly force to make a citizen’s arrest in very rare cases. They have to reasonably think deadly physical force is necessary to defend themselves 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?
There are legal defenses to allegations involving citizen’s arrest violations. Some of the most common include:
- The defendant acted out of necessity,
- The defendant acted out of self-defense or for the defense of someone else, and
- The defendant was 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 the defendant acted out of necessity.
To prove a defense of necessity, the defense has 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 the defendant did not cause,
- The defendant acted to prevent that harm, and
- The defendant 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:
- The defendant reasonably thought the person was about to use unlawful force, and
- The defendant 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 the defendant thought was about to get hurt.)
2.3 Helping a police officer
A police officer can command a private person to help make an arrest under CRS 16-3-202. When this happens, CRS 16-3-202(3) makes the person 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 violating CRS 16-3-201?
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 people for an incorrect citizen’s arrest. They can also be sued by the person they 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, the defendant may have to pay thousands of dollars in compensation, as well.
4. What offenses are related to citizen’s arrest charges?
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 private people do intentionally. Therefore, any serious injuries they 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 private people hurt the person they were trying to arrest, they can face second-degree assault charges if the injuries they 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 private people trap, hold down, or detain the person they 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 a private person wrongly makes a citizen’s arrest and moves the suspect to a new place, that person 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
People who make a citizen’s arrest can be charged with impersonating a peace officer (CRS 18-8-112) if they falsely pretend to be the police. A class 6 felony, this crime carries up to 18 months in prison.
Call us for help…
For legal representation on any felony, misdemeanor, DUI, or petty offense, please contact us at Colorado Legal Defense Group. 303-222-0330. Our criminal law firm also may be able to seal your criminal record.
- 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.