Citizen’s arrest

What is a citizen’s arrest?

A citizen’s arrest is an arrest by an individual who is not a police officer or other sworn law enforcement official. The law regarding citizen’s arrest is complicated and open to interpretation.

The law is found under section 24A of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (PACE). We set out the basic principles of citizen’s arrests.

The law states:

  • Anybody can arrest a person who is committing an indictable offence.
  • Anybody can arrest a person if they have reasonable grounds to suspect that they are committing an indictable offence.

Reasonable grounds will be assessed objectively – not according to the subjective viewpoint of the person making the arrest. An individual may only make a citizens arrest when it is not reasonably practical for a police constable to make the arrest, and it is necessary because the person is either:

  • Causing physical injury to themselves or others;
  • Suffering physical injury;
  • Causing damage or loss of property;
  • Escaping before a police constable can take responsibility of them.

Indictable offences

An indictable offence is an offence that is at least relatively serious, and may be tried in the Crown Court, such as violent assaults and burglary. However, it may well not be apparent at the time whether the person’s behaviour or conduct amounts to an indictable offence – so anyone contemplating making a citizen’s arrest needs to carefully assess the situation before acting.

So, if you believe you are witnessing a serious crime, such as a burglary, and you think they will make moves to escape quickly before the police arrive, you should do what you can to get immediate help from the police before considering a citizen’s arrest.

In practice, this can be difficult when time is of the essence, but if the person making the citizen’s arrest acted reasonably in the circumstances there should be no repercussions. If the individual did not act reasonably in making the arrest, they could face a civil claim from the individual concerned, and/or criminal charges.

Making a citizen’s arrest

If you are making a citizen’s arrest, you must inform the person what you are doing, and why, as soon as is reasonably possible. You must also tell them what offence you believe they have committed. If you have to use force when arresting the person, you must only use reasonable force.

Once the arrest has been made, the person apprehended must be taken to a magistrate or police station, otherwise the arrest will not be legally valid. You will have to make a statement and you could well be called upon as a witness if the individual is prosecuted.

Police Community Support Officers and citizen’s arrests

Police Community Support Officers (PCSOs) and store detectives use this right to make citizen’s arrests in the course of their employment. If a PCSO or a store detective arrests you, they will have to be able to show that the arrest satisfies the legal criteria as set out in PACE.

Other considerations

First and foremost, no one should put others or themselves in danger – even if the suspected criminal has the chance to escape. Instead, call 999 and leave the search and arrest to the professionals.

The legal implications of making citizen’s arrests are very complicated, not least because of the provisions that the person making the arrest must act reasonably. However, one difficulty is what constitutes ‘reasonable suspicion’ and ‘reasonable force’. Although the courts look favourably on members of the public who are seeking to assert their rights and protect other citizens, the risk is that someone executing a citizens arrest could face arrest and/or civil litigation if the citizen’s arrest was unlawful, or goes wrong.

About the Author

Nicola Laver LLB

Nicola is a dual qualified journalist and non-practising solicitor. She is a legal journalist, editor and author with more than 20 years' experience writing about the law.

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