By Maya Kushner, Esq. and Marc Emden, Esq.

“Citizen’s arrest” is a concept that often appears in movies and TV series, but leaves many wondering: is it an actual legal principle? A citizen’s arrest is in fact a real concept, and it is legal in all states, except North Carolina.

Pictured: A woman wearing a cape and mask. This symbolizes a citizen's arrest.As with many other legal concepts, the specifics of a citizen’s right to arrest vary by state. In Maryland, you may only perform a citizen’s arrest in the following circumstances:

  1. A felony (like a robbery, rape, or kidnapping) is committed in your presence or sight, or
  2. A felony is committed outside of your presence, and you have probable cause to believe that the person you are arresting is the perpetrator, or
  3. A misdemeanor is committed in your presence, and that crime amounts to a “breach of the peace.”

Whether a crime is a misdemeanor or a felony is classified under Maryland law. Generally, misdemeanors are those crimes that are punishable by a prison sentence of a year or less, while felonies are punishable by sentences of over one year. “Breach of the peace” signifies disorderly, dangerous conduct disruptive of public peace.

But before you bravely decide to arrest a man stealing a Rolex watch on the the metro, consider this: there are many dangers in performing a citizen’s arrest. For one, you may be physically hurt during the arrest, but you also may be opening yourself up to civil and criminal liability.

Mistake of Crime

The citizen’s arrest you perform must fall neatly into one of the three categories above to be lawful. For example, if you make an arrest for a felony that has occurred outside of your presence, but the court later rules that the crime is a misdemeanor, the arrest becomes retroactively unlawful. The perpetrator you arrested may now civilly sue you for assault (unwanted touching), false imprisonment, or kidnapping.

Use of Force

You do not have the same tools at your disposal when making an arrest as law enforcement does. Specifically, you may only use minimal force. You may never use deadly force while making a citizen’s arrest. Generally you may use “reasonable force,” to restrain the perpetrator, but what that means varies on a case by case basis, and if in your case the judge decides that the force was “excessive,” the perpetrator may sue you for assault and battery, or you may even be charged criminally for assault.

No Official Immunity

Most importantly, you, as a private citizen, do not have the same immunity from prosecution and other legal actions as law enforcement officers do. This is the reason you are open to civil and criminal liability if you mistake a crime for a felony or a breach of the peace, or if you use excessive force, or if you injure the perpetrator, etc. Law enforcement officers have official immunity from legal actions if they make such mistakes, which is why it is always best to just call 911 if you suspect or witness a crime.

While genuine risks exist when effecting a citizen’s arrest, there are many laudable reasons for someone who is not a police officer to arrest someone else. These reasons include acting as a good citizen and protecting others from future harm before the police can arrive. Arresting one person could also serve as a deterrent to others who were planning to engage in similar lawless behavior. Who can forget the brave souls who fought off hijackers on the doomed flight 93 which crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania on September 11, 2001? Wasn’t that a citizen’s arrest?