Can I Make a Citizen’s Arrest in San Diego?


Did you know that you may have the power to arrest another person if you observe them committing a crime? In the state of California, citizen’s arrests are legal under certain circumstances. A citizen's arrest is when one person, who is not a police officer, arrests another person. 

However, there are restrictions to this law to ensure that it is not abused. In fact, if you make an unlawful citizen’s arrest you could be held liable for criminal and civil charges. Read on to learn more about California citizen’s arrest laws and how to protect yourself from criminal or civil charges for making an unlawful citizen’s arrest. 

How is Citizen’s Arrest Defined in California? 

Penal Code 837 defines a citizen’s arrest as follows: 

“A private person may arrest another:

For a public offense committed or attempted in his presence.

When the person arrested has committed a felony, although not in his presence.

When a felony has been in fact committed, and he has reasonable cause for believing the person arrested to have committed it.”

For example, while shopping in your local Target, you observe a man putting a valuable piece of electronic equipment into his knapsack. You stop him and announce that he is under arrest for shoplifting.

Timing is important when it comes to making a citizen's arrest. You cannot wait days after the crime was committed to make the arrest. For misdemeanors, the crime must have been committed in your presence and the arrest must be made at that time.

How do you make a citizen’s arrest in California?

The law has taken steps to ensure that Penal Code 837 is not abused. In addition to the timing requirements stated above, there are other recommended procedures that people must take when making a citizen’s arrest in California.

Recommendations include:

  • You should state out loud to the perpetrator that you intend on making a citizen’s arrest.
  • You should state out loud to the perpetrator why you are making the citizen’s arrest.
  • You should state out loud to the perpetrator that you are authorized to make a citizen's arrest.
  • If you have contacted law enforcement, you should state out loud to the perpetrator that you have done so.

As you can imagine, the act of making a citizen’s arrest can come with risks. Few people will willingly be arrested by someone who is not in law enforcement. If you choose to initiate a citizens’ arrest, be sure that you are prepared for resistance. Whenever possible, you should contact law enforcement before making the arrest so that backup responds quickly.

When is a citizen’s arrest unlawful?

It is risky to make a citizen’s arrest unless you are sure that it is a lawful arrest. Refer to the definition above to understand the circumstances that must be present in order for you to make a lawful arrest.

If care is not taken, you can leave yourself open to criminal and civil liability. If you will make a citizen’s arrest, you want to make sure that the circumstances are warranted. Then, you want to avoid use of force. If excessive force is used in making the arrest, you can be held liable after the fact. The use of force must be reasonable based on the facts of the situation.

It is also incumbent upon you to keep your safety and that of the perpetrator in mind during the arrest. It is in your best interest to get law enforcement involved immediately after you begin your citizen’s arrest. This can prevent you from engaging longer than necessary. 

Have you made an unlawful citizen’s arrest?

While citizen’s arrests are legal in California, they are not legal in every state across the country. Citizen’s arrests are only warranted in certain circumstances, and it is critical that you understand the circumstances before you initiate an arrest. Lack of knowledge and use of excessive force could leave you liable for criminal charges such as assault, battery, false imprisonment or kidnapping. It can also leave you vulnerable to civil charges.

If you are facing unlawful citizen’s arrests charges in California, contact an experienced criminal defense lawyer who can defend you and your rights under the law. The Law Office of Joni Eisenstein proudly serves Oceanside and San Diego. Contact us today to schedule your free consultation.