How to make a citizen’s arrest

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Those Women's Institute taekwondo classes had begun to pay dividends
"The power of citizen's arrest empowers ordinary people with the right to arrest wrong-doers when the forces of law and order fail to do so" Peter Tatchell, civil rights campaigner
  • | by Dan Moore

Ever thought about going all 'Rambo' on someone who messes with you or your community? Despite the risks, some people do by making a citizen’s arrest.

Take 23-year-old Monique Bastos. Earlier this month she found herself facing would-be muggers on the streets of Acailandia, Brazil.

In many scenarios, you’d expect only one outcome – happy criminals and downcast or injured victims. But this wasn’t the case in Acailandia that particular night.

One mugger had the sense to leg it when the other was tackled by Monique – who happens to be a world-class martial arts expert.

Ms Bastos disabled the remaining crook, clamping Wesley Sousa de Araujo in a vice-like leg grip, and keeping the blubbering mug under citizen’s arrest until the police arrived.

She had the skills to undertake such a risky manoeuvre, but what about the rest of us? Here’s what all have-a-go heroes need to know before thinking about making a citizen’s arrest.

Know your rights

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You don’t have to be a police officer to arrest someone, provided you know the rules, which are set out in the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984.

This piece of legislation states a person other than a constable may arrest without a warrant anyone ‘who is in the act of committing an indictable offence; or anyone whom the person has reasonable grounds to suspect is committing an indictable offence’.

Just to clarify, an indictable offence is one that’s serious enough to be heard in a magistrate's or crown court and tried by jury. These include such crimes as actual bodily harm, sexual assault, theft, fraud, burglary and certain levels of criminal damage.

Citizen’s arrest also acts as a leveller, meaning that anyone committing an indictable offence, including the wealthy and influential, can be brought to task by ordinary people.

Civil rights campaigner Peter Tatchell told us why this is important: "The power of citizen's arrest empowers ordinary people with the right to arrest wrong-doers when the forces of law and order fail to do so. Too often the rich and powerful use their influence to evade justice. Being able to make a citizen's arrest gives the unrich and unpowerful the means to make sure they don't get away with it."

A split decision too far?

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Citizen’s arrests are very rare, and for good reason, as they can involve a high level of personal risk and stress. You may encounter a violent or powerful criminal and could get in over your head before you know it, as the timescale to decide whether you should get all gung-ho will be measured in moments rather than minutes. From start to finish you’d need to assess the reason for making an arrest, weigh up whether you're likely to be harmed and be sure that the crime you’re attempting to foil is serious enough.

If your head isn’t spinning by now, it’s worth considering the small print, because this is a tricky area of law.

In general, and in cases other than arson, you can only arrest someone for criminal damage where the damage caused amounts to at least £5,000.

If you’re not sure of the value of the item that's being damaged or has been damaged, you’re probably better off leaving the matter to the police.

Incidentally, it’s probably best not to try to arrest a police officer you suspect of breaking the law, not least as you can’t legally undertake a citizen’s arrest if a constable is present – which means the person you’re trying to arrest could turn the tables on you.

Deep breath, and back to something clearer. If you go ahead with a citizen’s arrest, you can only use what’s called ‘reasonable’ force. Sure, restrain, but avoid harm or distress as you could find yourself facing a criminal charge for assault, wrongful arrest or unlawful imprisonment.

Fight or flight?

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This is an issue Leigh Simms, a martial arts instructor and author of "UK Self-Defence Law: A Practical Guide to Understanding the Law of Defending Yourself", is well aware of. He said: “From a self-protection instructor viewpoint, it is my belief that I should teach my students how to escape a violent encounter. I don't teach people to 'win' fights or to 'arrest and restrain' attackers. The safety of the student is paramount and the majority of occasions will mean the student escapes the situation as soon as possible."

Leigh added: “That being said we look at certain scenarios in our class and have to decide if we would make a citizen’s arrest. With my more committed students we use the rule 'if you have the tools, then use them'. What we mean by this is that if you feel morally obliged to step into a situation to help a victim of crime and you have the necessary skillset to do so, then you can.”

This approach chimes with the legal position as the courts don’t consider citizen’s arrest as a vigilante’s charter.

And there are a set of rules to follow when and after making a citizen’s arrest to ensure all is above board. For instance, you must tell the person being arrested what they are doing and what offence you deem them to have committed, or to be in the process of committing.

Having arrested a miscreant, you must hand them to a magistrate or police officer. Be aware that you will need to make a statement and may be required to appear as a witness in court. This is an important consideration, as you may feel uncomfortable about standing up before a jury.

Leave it to the professionals?

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So while the strong willed may wish to make an example of the likes of Wesley Sousa de Araujo, who cried for his mummy while being held by Monique Bastos, the rest of us might want to take the safer route. This would involve noting the criminal’s looks, clothes, any getaway vehicles and associates, then disappearing into the background and dialling 999.

As a Scotland Yard spokesman said: “Everyone has the right to make a citizen’s arrest. But rather than hear from have-a-go heroes, unless you are in imminent danger, we would prefer to receive an accurate description of the crime and criminal.”

Citizen’s arrest and insurance

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Clearly it’s not worth risking life and limb in the course of making a citizen’s arrest, but if you do get injured at least this probably will not invalidate any private medical insurance or income protection policy you hold.

Fiona Whytock from Aviva explained: “From an income protection perspective, sustaining an injury whilst making a citizen’s arrest wouldn’t have any impact on the claim or how Aviva would consider this. The claim would still be considered in line with any other claim, if the terms of the policy were met.”

Disclaimer: This information on citizen's arrests applies to England and Wales. The position differs in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

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