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Can I make a citizen's arrest?

While members of the public are entitled to make arrests, the law regarding citizen’s arrest is complex and also open to interpretation. According to section 24A Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (as amended by the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005), any person can arrest without a warrant:

•    anyone who is in the act of committing an indictable offence;;
•    anyone whom they have reasonable grounds for suspecting to be committing an indictable offence;
•    anyone who is guilty of committing an indictable offence; or
•    anyone that they have reasonable grounds to suspect to be guilty of having committed an indictable offence.

However, even if these criteria are met, there are two further requirements for a citizen’s request to be lawful:

•    it is not reasonably practicable for a police constable to make the arrest;
•    it is necessary to prevent the person in question:
o    causing physical injury to himself or any other person;
o    suffering physical injury;
o    causing loss or damage to property; or
o    making off before a constable can assume responsibility for him.

A particular problem for private security personnel is that the law does not grant the power to make a citizen’s arrest merely on the suspicion that an individual is about to commit an indictable offence. Having said that, it is an indictable offence to attempt to carry out an indictable offence, which includes any act that is more than merely preparatory to committing the offence. However, this is an example of why there may be a lot of ‘borderline’ cases where it is not at all clear whether a citizen’s arrest would be lawful.

What is an indictable offence?

An indictable offence is one that is, or could be, tried in a crown court (by jury). Indictable offences include theft, homicide, serious and indecent assaults, assault and/or battery, rape, criminal damage and arson. Be certain that your suspect is truly committing an indictable offence before you decide to act as it can be difficult to decide whether an offence is indictable when you are witnessing what you think might be a crime.

Making a citizen’s arrest

There are no rules explaining the exact way to go about making a citizen’s arrest, but if you decide to make one, bear in mind the following points:

  • you must inform the person what you are doing as soon as is reasonably possible;
  • you must tell them why you are arresting them as soon as is reasonably possible;
  • you must tell the person what offence you believe they have committed;
  • you may only use reasonable force when arresting the person in question.

For your citizen’s arrest to be legally valid, you must, once you have arrested the person, immediately take them to a police station or to a magistrate. In practice, you should make sure you alert a police officer at the earliest opportunity. After you have brought your suspect to the police, you’ll be required to make a full statement. You may also have to go to court to act as a witness, should the case come to trial.

When making an arrest, it is permitted to use ‘reasonable force’ to restrain your suspect. However, ‘reasonable force’ isn’t clearly defined anywhere and so being a vigilante and attacking people you suspect of committing crimes could result in you being prosecuted instead. The circumstances of the arrest will define what sort of force is considered reasonable and, if the case comes to trial, the use of ‘reasonable force’ will be determined there. 

It is possible for a person to be sued for unlawful arrest or face civil litigation if a citizen’s arrest goes wrong or does not comply with the law. Consequently, you should think carefully before you make a citizen’s arrest, particularly as the legal issues involved are very complicated and may involve a lot of discussion in court.

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