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Holding at Bay - Citizen's Arrest and the Law

Part 4 of Protecting Yourself and the Church with Use of Force Laws

Two men handcuffing a man

And Elijah said to them, “Seize the prophets of Baal; let not one of them escape.” And they seized them. ~ 1 Kings 18:40

The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in the midst they said to [Jesus], “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery.” ~ John 8:3-4

“For this reason the Jews seized me in the temple and tried to kill me.” ~ Acts 26:21

This series is based on the Sheepdog Church Security[1] downloadable Training Bundle[2] Protecting Yourself and the Church with Use of Force Laws v3[3] and the Online Security Guide[4]chapter Use of Force and Citizen's Arrest Laws[5].

In the News

Antioch, TN, Sunday, September 24, 2017The Sunday morning church service ended with the final hymn and the closing prayer. Melanie picked up her purse and left the sanctuary. After greeting the pastor, she went outside. The door closed behind her as she turned and walked to her car, parked at the side of the church.

Shots rang out. Melanie dropped to the pavement, dying. The masked gunman looked at her, then headed to the door. While coming in, he shot and wounded the pastor. As he entered the sanctuary, the pastor yelled, "Run! Get out!" The gunman shot at fleeing parishioners, wounding a few. Then he stopped shooting as an usher grabbed his wrist, wrestling for the gun.

The usher knocked the gun away and took the shooter down to the floor. The usher's father held the shooter at bay with the gunman's own weapon while the usher went to get his own gun and took over, holding the killer for the police, who had already been called. [6]

What Is Citizen's Arrest?

According to Wikipedia , "A citizen's arrest is an arrest made by a person who is not acting as a sworn law-enforcement official." [7] It has been a part of Common Law in England and North America, but it is really not that new.

History of Citizen's Arrest

Before there were official police departments, most arrests were made by citizens. In societies without established court systems, justice was usually handled by clan and tribal leaders, as well as village elders. Crimes were often avenged by the victims or their families.

A king or governor could send soldiers to arrest a person for some offense against the rulers. Citizens would arrest someone caught in a crime, then bring that person to the authorities for trial. The king, governor, or elders would be the court for civil as well as criminal cases.

It was used as a ploy, but the Pharisees and Scribes caught a woman in the act of adultery (against the Law at that time and place), arrested her, and brought her to Jesus for judgment (John 8:3-5).

Citizen's Arrest Today

With modern law enforcement agencies, citizen's arrest is no longer the norm, but the exception. It is still allowed, because many times that is how a crime is stopped. It also means immediate arrest of an offender caught in the act, saving the time of hunting a suspect down. In the case of violent crime, it can spare other potential victims, who would be at risk with an assailant on the loose.

If a person asks a [suspected] offender to wait for the police, and that person complies, this may qualify as a citizen's arrest, even though the level of force on the Continuum was only verbal.

Required Citizen's Arrest

Sometimes a citizen's arrest is required, ordered by a law enforcement officer. This also has a long, traditional history. Sheriffs in Medieval England and the American West could recruit citizens for posses to track and capture criminals. When Elijah ordered the people to seize the prophets of Baal, King Ahab was there, and he let Elijah exercise that authority (1 Kings 18:20-40).

Justification for Citizen's Arrest

Modern law in the United States specifies the conditions for a citizen's arrest. There are some slight variations in state laws, but generally they agree on key points. As an example, here is an excerpt from Section 837 of the California Penal Code:

A private person may arrest another:

  1. For a public offense committed or attempted in his/her presence.
  1. When the person arrested has committed a felony, although not in his or her presence.
  1. When a felony has been in fact committed, and he or she has reasonable cause for believing the person arrested to have committed it. [7]

Obviously, the most easily justified situation is #1. In the Antioch, Tennessee church shooting, the citizen's arrest was the culmination of an act of defense, which undoubtedly saved lives.

In situations #2 and #3, there must be certain knowledge of the felony committed. Also note that, whereas in situation #1 it is a "public offense" (otherwise known as a "breech of the peace"), in the latter two it is a felony. For instance, a church safety team member could execute a citizen's arrest on a thief he actually sees picking pockets, but not when the victim comes and says, "So-and-So picked my pocket." However, in many states, situation #2 would apply if the subject was a correctly identified felonious fugitive from justice.

False Arrest

Paul was seized in the Temple on the basis of a false rumor, a supposition that he had brought an uncircumcised Gentile into the Temple. Fortunately, Roman soldiers rescued him (Acts 21:27-36). This is an example of false arrest. In this country, that could bring both criminal charges and civil lawsuits.

Level of Force

In a citizen's arrest, the level of force used must be no greater than the level of the offense. In other words, it must be proportionate . In Antioch, deadly force was justified in defending against actively used deadly force, therefore it was justified for holding a suspect for the police. If the suspect fled, as was the case in Sutherland Springs [8] , pursuit was justified, though risky.

According to FindLaw , there are legal liabilities in a misuse of deadly force:

Any use of deadly force during a citizen's arrest that does not comply with the applicable state law could result in manslaughter or murder charges against the arresting individual, as well as a wrongful death lawsuit from the family of the suspected criminal. [9]

Proceed with Caution

Citizen's arrest should not be taken lightly. It may be necessary in protecting yourself and others, but it has its own hazards. The Sheepdog Church security course says,

Think Twice . . . Make That 3 Times

  1. Risk to personal and public safety
  2. Civil or criminal liability
  3. You could be arrested!

To Follow the Rules, Know the Rules

Find out what the laws of your state say about citizen's arrest.

Just a Note:

  1. To get the downloadable training course Protecting Yourself and the Church with Use of Force Laws v3 , go to the Store [2] tab on the Menu bar above.
  1. If you haven't already, sign up for our newsletter, The Church Guardian.. [10]


Training Bundles [2]

Online Security Guide [4]

"Burnette Chapel shooting" [6]

"Citizen's arrest" [7]

"Sutherland Springs church shooting" [8]