Is there such a thing as a ‘citizen’s arrest?’

The in basket: Robert Arper wonders about something we’ve all heard of, but probably have never actually witnessed.

“My question has to do with ‘Citizen Arrest,’ he said. “When could a citizen invoke this procedure and when would the police officers recommend that we do not attempt a citizen arrest and what is the process for a citizen arrest?

“For example, would calling 911 to report a person or a license plate number for someone who litters or speeds be considered a citizen arrest? Is a citizen allowed to detain a person?”

The out basket: The term ‘arrest’ by definition would entail detaining a person, so reporting an offense to 911 wouldn’t constitute an arrest, citizen’s or otherwise.

Claire Bradley, a senior deputy in the Kitsap County Prosecutor’s Office, says, “There is no provision that I know of for a lawful ‘citizen’s arrest’ in our state statutes. RCW 10.31.100  (et seq) deals with arrests of suspects, and it is exclusively related to law enforcement officers executing lawful arrests.

“It would be extremely unwise for a citizen to attempt to make an arrest or detain someone they believed committed a crime. It is absolutely unsafe to attempt to do so, and may give rise to civil or criminal actions against the citizen conducting the ‘arrest.'”

She didn’t specify what actions, but assault or kidnapping come to mind as charges that could arise from detaining another by force or threat for reasons found to be insufficient.

“There is, however,” Claire continued, “a provision in the Washington Court Rules for a citizen complaint filed in a court of limited jurisdiction. So, citizens CAN file a criminal complaint in a district or municipal court, for any misdemeanor or gross misdemeanor, provided they follow the requirements set out in the Court Rule. CrRLJ 2.1(c).  A citizen would need to file the complaint in proper form, and then the criminal action may be instituted.”

One assumes this would come into play if the prosecutor declined to bring the charge. Note also that felonies are excluded from this avenue.

Claire calls the following “the relevant portion of the rule:”

“(c) Citizen Complaints. Any person wishing to institute a criminal action

alleging a misdemeanor or gross misdemeanor shall appear before a judge empowered to commit persons charged with offenses against the State, other than

a judge pro tem.

“The judge may require the appearance to be made on the

record, and under oath. The judge may consider any allegations on the basis of

an affidavit sworn to before the judge. The court may also grant an opportunity at said hearing for evidence to be given by the county prosecuting attorney or

deputy, the potential defendant or attorney of record, law enforcement or other

potential witnesses.  The court may also require the presence of other potential witnesses.”

Considerations that would likely result in refusal to let the citizen’s prosecution proceed include possible liability it would create for the county, possible disruption of other prosecutions, whether the complainant has adequate recourse in small claims court or other civil venues, and records of the parties involved as regards crimes of dishonesty.

If the case overcomes all those hurdles, the judge would warn the plaintiff about “the gravity of initiating a criminal complaint, of the necessity of a court

appearance or appearances for himself or herself and witnesses, of the possible

liability for false arrest and of the consequences of perjury” before authorizing the case to proceed.

7 thoughts on “Is there such a thing as a ‘citizen’s arrest?’

  1. Deputy Bradley is correct in saying there is no provision in our state statutes (RCW) for a lawful citizen’s arrest.

    However, citizen’s arrest is lawful under Washington state case laws, and the common law right of citizens under RCW 9A.04.060. These laws are what gives un-sworn citizens, such as private security guards, the ability to lawfully detain suspects who have committed misdemeanors and felonies on their property.

    It still would be unwise for most citizens to attempt such an arrest, but the real answer is such an arrest or detention is in fact lawful in Washington State.

    So, let’s try again. “Is there such a thing as a ‘citizen’s arrest?’ Here is the un-censored answer to that question from the State Department of Licensing.

  2. RCW 10.88.330
    Or this RCW, 1st Section. Im starting to question the Kitsap County Prosecutor’s Office and their knowledge of the law. These were from a quick google search.

  3. In other words, just stand idly by, don’t get involved, it’s none of your business, move on, go about your lawful business…

    …’cause you’re not a PROFESSIONAL…

    …with a badge and a gun…

    …and quite possibly a whistle…


  4. I invited Claire Bradley to expand on her previous answer in light of the above comments and she replied:

    “In an article open to the public, I wanted to be as conservative as possible, so as not to give a false sense of the lawfulness of a citizen’s arrest. It would be irresponsible to give readers a false sense of the law and have them subject themselves to injury and potential civil/ criminal liability.

    Yes, HISTORICALLY, there has been a common law right to citizen’s arrest. However, the case law created (and continues to be created) on this issue disfavors ordinary citizens taking matters into their own hands. And I can tell you that the few times we’ve seen someone try to take matter into their own hands, it has ended badly (injuries, criminal charges, etc). It is just not a safe idea.

    There is a distinction between “ordinary citizens,” and those citizens who have a quasi-law enforcement role. Yes, “citizens” can detain persons, but mostly when they are acting in some sort of law enforcement capacity (not rising to the level of a uniformed, duly appointed peace officer). Security guards, retail loss prevention officers, court personnel, process servers—these are all “citizens” who may detain a suspect, but they all enjoy a special distinction of acting in an “official capacity,” and having a quasi-law enforcement role.

    The best illustration of this is looking at the Assault in the Third Degree statute. Security guards at retail stores are one such instance where a citizen is afforded a “special role.”

    Here’s a 2008 case: Security guard at Store A attempts to apprehend a person who stole from Store B. Suspect assaults security guard while guard was trying to apprehend them. The Court ruled the security guard’s detention was unlawful (and therefore there was no assault against the security officer). The Court held that the guard did not see the theft from Store B, and Store B had not asked his help to apprehend the suspect, so there was no lawful detention by the guard, and therefore no assault by the shoplifter. State v. Garcia (2008) 146 Wash.App. 821, 193 P.3d 181

    So, you see, even though security guards are afforded a “special role” that is distinct from an ordinary citizen, the case law even limits the lengths a security guard may go in the discharge of their official duties.

    One of your readers mentioned 10.88; that has to do with extradition, and bail bonding companies are designated agents that can take charge of a defendant who has a warrant and has absconded from the jurisdiction.

    Whether there is a historical common law right, or even a statute on the books does not make it good law. You have to look at how courts interpret these laws. Again, I would highly recommend against any “ordinary citizen” trying to detain or apprehend a suspect absent having a special role that is law enforcement related (and working within their official capacity. The best course is to call 911.

  5. Ms Bradley’s follow-up (and contradicting) answer should have been her original one.

    If her concerns about giving that kind of legal advice over a public blog were that great, then the best thing for her to do was to remain silent and not give any answer at all. Or, refer readers who have a real interest in this subject to an attorney. Otherwise, when a public officer chooses to answer a question to the public like this, they should not mislead the people or spoon-feed them dumb downed answers. Getting called out only hurts trust from the public.

    I wholeheartedly agree that because of the possible legal repercussions, citizens should not try to attempt this at home. No. I rephase that: Citizens should not try to attempt this on MOST crime situations they come across.

    But I also don’t believe that by giving COMPLETE answers on this blog, that all of a sudden Kitsap residents will start carrying billy clubs and handcuffs and become cowboy vigilantes running themselves up on civil lawsuits. Oftentimes politicians and people in office put out public advice as if the entire population was cut from one cookie cutter. Up until 9/11/2001, authorities echoed Ms Bradley when giving skyjacking advice: “Comply with the hijacker and do not try apprehend him due to injury and potential liability.” That mentality changed after United Flight 93.

    Most people will naturally be sheep. They will not let themselves get involved beyond calling 911 no matter great the felony (or misdemeanor) is that they are witnessing, and no matter how truthful Ms Bradley was in her blog advice to them.

    About 2 years ago, a drunk driver fell asleep and crashed his car through a neighbor’s fence in the early morning hours, narrowly missing crashing through her bedroom. After finding out that someone had already called 911, he tried to restart his car and drive away. I took away his keys and physically detained him until the deputies arrived. I didn’t have to do that. But I would not have been able to live with myself if this driver went on to kill someone else in my neighborhood because I chose to follow Ms Bradley’s advice. The consequences of me not detaining him were pretty clear, which is why I know none of the deputies who arrived advised me against making such a “foolish” decision.

    There is nothing wrong with protecting yourself, your family, and your neighbor. But there is something very wrong with cowering in a corner while your family, and neighbors are getting hurt. You will always be closer to your fellow citizens than to the nearest responding cop. And there is nothing wrong with being TRUTHFUL to the sheep and sheepdogs in our community with the answer to this citizen’s arrest question. It is not going to make citizens react like a bunch of immature mobs who land themselves in front of Ms Bradley in the Prosecutor’s Office.

  6. There’s been several cases reported by the Kitsap Sun involving what I would describe as a “citizen’s arrest”. I’ve never seen any followup stories indicating that people have been charged for unlawful detention. These examples were reported in the last three years.

    There was a story about a drunk driver that drove over the Silverdale Roundabout. She crashed through a road sign. When she attempted to leave, witnesses removed her from the vehicle, and sat/restrained her until the authorities arrived.

    A former member of the nksd school board, was detained by customers at a restaurant, for driving his truck into other vehicles. He was drunk at the scene.

    Ms. Bradley doesn’t have her facts straight.

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