Criminal Law

You're Under (Citizen's) Arrest: Now What?

A woman goes to her car in a municipal lot in a small city. There, clipped to her front windshield, is a parking ticket for unauthorized parking in a handicapped space. However, no handicapped parking space signs were posted at the space. What's more, the signature on the ticket isn't a city official, but a "Citizen Patrol" volunteer.

Thanks to the help of an attorney, she gets the ticket dismissed after finding that the city's laws require that handicapped parking spaces be marked by posted signs, not just by a handicapped symbol painted on the pavement.

Citizen's Arrests OK in Some Places

Our country's fascination with the duties of police officers is shown by all the television shows and movies depicting the dangerous and exciting world of law enforcement. However, in real life the work has its ups and downs, its slow periods and mundane duties. Community volunteers feel they have the knowledge and time to make citizens' arrests.

Many municipalities provide for some type of community volunteer or auxiliary officers to help with citations limited offenses, such as parking or ordinance violations. Citizen's arrests aren't allowed for major, high-risk and high-penalty offenses.

Citizen's Arrests May Exceed the Scope of Authority

Each town or city must have a law authorizing community volunteers. The citation give can only be for offenses defined in the law. Proper training, qualifications, and current authorization to act must be given before the volunteer can act.

For example, if a volunteer spots drugs or stolen goods inside a vehicle while writing a parking ticket, they can't issue a ticket for unlawful possession, search or impound the vehicle, or wait for the car's owner and take them into custody. Instead, they would alert the "official" police officers who would take over.

Volunteers who go too far catching offenders may find themselves in hot water, from a civil or criminal standpoint. Especially if the volunteer uses force or injures the person when trying to restrain the "offender" or bring him or her to a police station.

The suspect may later press charges or bring a civil action. The likelihood of the charges sticking depends on the circumstances. Among the types of claims that may be filed against the volunteer is a claim for "false imprisonment," for wrongfully restraining someone.

Is It Worth the Risk?

Before setting out to serve as a community volunteer to write tickets, review a written description of the duties and responsibilities carefully. Seek the advice of an attorney if you aren't sure whether this may put you at risk of civil or criminal penalties if something goes awry. Even though your motivation may be sincere, you may decide that the risks aren't worth it.

Citation Issued

If you've been wrongfully arrested, ticketed or injured by a community volunteer, immediately seek the advice of an attorney. Whether it's worthwhile to pursue any action will depend on a number of factors, including:

  • The nature and extent of your injury;
  • The reasonableness of the volunteer's actions; and
  • Your conduct prior to and during the "arrest"

An attorney will assess these factors in light of past experience, and his or her knowledge of the local police and prosecutors. It's important to keep good written documentation of the incident for later reference, and to protect yourself in the event your own conduct is called into question.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • If I'm a citizen volunteer, writing parking tickets or tracking speed limit violations, what are my responsibilities - would I have to go to traffic court as a police officer would if a driver challenged a ticket?
  • I was involved in a citizen's arrest as a citizen volunteer, and now the person I arrested says he's going to sue me; can I be sued as an individual person, or would my city or town be named in the lawsuit as well?
  • I think a "citizen volunteer" abused their authority while making a citizen's arrest, and that the action taken against me was a civil rights violation. Do any civil rights laws apply to my situation?
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