Are citizen’s arrests legal? – California Penal Code PC 837

Posted by Raoul Severo | Nov 24, 2020 | 0 Comments

What is a “Citizen's Arrest”

A private person's arrest or more commonly known as citizen's arrest is the act of apprehending a criminal, usually while committing a crime, done by someone who is not a sworn law-enforcement officer - a civilian.

In the United States, a private person can arrest someone without a warrant for a crime that is currently occurring in their presence. However, the scopes for the criminal offenses that can merit a citizen's arrest may vary in every state.

The states of California enacted Penal Code PC 837 to allow an individual to perform a citizen's arrest when someone breached the peace by committing or attempting to commit a public offense or a felony.

PC 837

California Penal Code PC 837 is the law that enables the act of citizen's arrest or private person's arrest in the state of California. It says that a private person may arrest another when:

  • Someone is committing or attempting to commit a public offense in his/her presence;
  • The person he/she is arresting committed a felony even though the criminal act was not done in his/her presence.
  • When a felony has been, in fact, committed and he/she has reasonable cause for believing that the person arrested has committed it.

According to California Penal Code PC 15, a public offense is an act committed or omitted in violation of a law forbidding or commanding it, and to which is annexed, upon conviction, either of the following punishments:

  • death,
  • imprisonment,
  • fine,
  • removal from office, or
  • disqualification to hold and enjoy any office of honor, trust, or profit in this State.


  • Jonathan got into a heated argument in the park. Because of the intense situation, he started throwing things at the person he is arguing with. None of the stuff he threw landed. A bystander can place Jonathan under a citizen's arrest for assault under PC 240.
  • Kenneth was extremely drunk. When the establishment's security personnel are trying to make him leave for making a scene, he attacked him. With or without causing any injury, a bystander can place Kenneth under a citizen's arrest for battery under PC 242.
  • Liam was attempting to steal a very expensive watch from his friend's personal cabinet, but someone caught him in the act. The witness can place Liam under citizen's arrest for theft under PC 484.

Things to do while making a citizen's arrest

When placing someone under a citizen's arrest, the person conducting it should always:

  • Call the proper law enforcement agency prior to arresting someone;
  • Inform the individual that he/she will be arresting him/her;
  • Tell the individual the reasons as to why he/she is being placed under arrest;
  • Avoid using unnecessary force if possible; and
  • Never search for his/her possessions.

Making a citizen's arrest is dangerous because of the possible consequences that might fall on the person doing it. Because of that, a person should not go around arresting criminal offenders caught in the act; he/she should always reach out to law enforcement first before playing the role of a hero.

Consequences of a wrongful citizen's arrest

A person who wrongfully placed someone under a citizen's arrest can be subjected to civil and criminal liability. The person arrested can file charges against the arrester when:

  • He/she did not commit a crime;
  • There was no reasonable cause to pin a crime on the arrestee; or
  • The arrester used unnecessary force while arresting the arrestee.

Civil liability covers the damages inflicted upon the arrestee for unlawful arrests. These damages include:

  • Compensatory damages (legal and medical bills, lost earnings, lost wages, pain and suffering, etc.)
  • Punitive damages.

Criminal liabilities are the criminal charges thrown at the arrester for subjecting the arrestee in an unlawful citizen's arrest. The typical charges in cases like this are:

Being charged with the following can lead to fines and/or incarceration.

Legal Support

If you or someone you know has been unlawfully placed under citizen's arrest, it would be in the concerned party's best interest to seek the help of our California-based criminal defense lawyers. They can help you seek compensations for the damages inflicted upon you or your acquaintance's person or sue the arrester and make them face the criminal consequences of their actions.

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