The Good, the Bad and the Ugly of Citizen’s Arrests

Nearly every state has a citizen’s arrest law allowing civilians to detain someone if they have witnessed a crime being committed. Some of these laws allow only felony suspects to be held until law enforcement arrives while others also allow those suspected of “breach of peace” misdemeanors to be held.
Does this mean you can use any force necessary to restrain the Peeping Tom outside your daughter’s window or the neighborhood vandal who is spray painting your mailbox? Not exactly, it’s more complicated than that.

People are reevaluating citizen’s arrest laws these days because of the February 23rd shooting death of jogger Ahmaud Arbery in Glynn County, Georgia. A local prosecutor blocked the arrest of Gregory and Travis McMichael, the white father-and-son duo who were seen on video pursuing Arbery through their neighborhood and who’s gun caused the young black man’s death. The prosecutor cited Georgia’s citizen’s arrest law when he seemed to declare the men were legally in “hot pursuit” and had “solid firsthand probable cause” that Arbery was a “burglary suspect.”

Ahmaud Arbery Was Killed While Jogging

There is absolutely no evidence that Arbery, 25, was a burglar, although he was seen briefly wandering through a home under construction. Arbery was not armed as he jogged through the McMichael’s neighborhood. He had no alcohol or drugs in his system when he was fatally shot twice in the chest.
According to Lawrence Zimmerman, the president of Georgia’s Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers his state’s citizen’s arrest law says force can only be used to prevent a violent felony. “What is not lawful is, you can’t detain somebody and then use force,” he said.
It took more than two months and very public protests before the Georgia Bureau of Investigation stepped in and both McMichael men were arrested. They are charged with murder and aggravated assault.

Official mugshots of Gregory (left) and Travis McMichael. Now charged with murder in the death of Ahmaud Arbery.
Gregory and Travis McMichael Charged With Murder

Some crime and justice types now argue that citizen’s arrest laws, on the books in Georgia since Civil War days, should be scrapped. They believe there is adequate policing these days and no need for civilians to put themselves in harm’s way. Others point to diminishing staffing in police departments, nationwide, and maintain that citizen involvement remains key to catching criminals.
Now, back to your Peeping Tom or mailbox vandal. Say you forcibly hold the person while your spouse calls police. In the scuffle the suspect has a heart attack or sustains a broken bone. Since force is, generally, not allowed under current citizen’s arrest laws you have just opened yourself up to possible arrest for assault or a civil lawsuit. Things can quickly get out of control.
Last spring Hannah Payne, 21, likely had citizen’s arrest on her mind when she followed Kenneth Herring, 62, after watching him flee the scene of a fender bender. A Fayetteville, Georgia 911 dispatcher was on the phone with Payne urging the young woman not to confront the guilty driver. Payne did it anyway, with a gun in her hand. Witnesses say the young woman ordered Herring to “Get out of the car!” sounding every bit like an officer “on a cop’s show on TV.” Herring was shot in the abdomen and died. Payne now faces multiple murder related charges.

Gary, Indiana's former City Council President, Ron Brewer. Official mugshot.
Ron Brewer Tried a Citizen’s Arrest – It Didn’t Go Well

Or consider the case of Gary, Indiana’s City Council President Ron Brewer. Last September he and his wife spotted his stolen Lexus with a group of teens inside. They called a 911 operator and gave chase. Brewer was caught on 911 audiotape shooting at the suspects – a bullet hole was found in the trunk of his Lexus – and grabbing up a 14-year old suspect telling him his mother would be getting him back “in a (expletive) body bag.” Instead of driving the youngster to the police station Brewer took him home. The upshot of this apparent attempt at a citizen’s arrest? Brewer was charged with criminal recklessness and kidnapping.
Its likely most citizen’s arrests go just fine. The suspect is held, officers arrive and justice is done. Police can’t be everywhere, and well-meaning citizens can be an asset.
I don’t believe it’s time to scrap citizen arrest laws although some should probably be clarified. That said, we cannot allow vigilante-style justice to take hold. Those who cross the line from Good Samaritan to imitating TV cops must be held accountable.



  1. Diane Dimond on May 25, 2020 at 11:36 am

    Reader Democrats=Dishonesty writes:

    “There is absolutely no evidence that Arbery, 25, was a burglar, although he was seen briefly wandering through a home under construction.”
    Actually, Arbery “wandered” through the home for several minutes.
    I’m not sure I’d refer to that as “briefly”.

    • Diane Dimond on May 25, 2020 at 11:52 am

      Diane Dimond replies:

      But certainly you don’t mean to say that someone who trespases at a construction site deserves to be stalked and killed, right?

    • Diane Dimond on May 25, 2020 at 11:53 am

      Reader Bobrsta replies:

      “Briefly” or for several minutes. What crime is curiosity? Yes, trespass, but many like to look at construction projects without malicious intent.

  2. Diane Dimond on May 25, 2020 at 11:37 am

    Reader Sahajrob writes:

    Citizen’s arrest should not be in question. Had they detained Mr. Arbery legally I would have no objection. They executed him, unfortunately, which was not their right and has nothing to do with citizen’s arrest. Let’s not conflate the two.

  3. Diane Dimond on May 25, 2020 at 11:37 am

    Reader Paul F writes:

    There is no law that can protect us against dumbasses with guns.

  4. Diane Dimond on May 25, 2020 at 11:38 am

    Reader Edward Welchel writes:

    Let’s backup before speaking of “race”. Any time you go out your front door with a weapon in hand regardless whether you have a license or not, legal or not, regardless….you take the responsibility of being responsible. It is your responsibility to use that fire arm or that weapon in a responsible way, if you do not then it is, and only YOUR responsibility, this Father put his own son in this situation too. There was a human life that was lost, somebody has to pay for that….and that has nothing to do with RACE!

  5. Diane Dimond on May 25, 2020 at 11:39 am

    Reader Mike Chan writes:

    What clothing and footwear was the “jogger” wearing? Why was the “jogger” stopping his run and walking around houses under construction. The father, (retired Police Officer), had a duty to maintain control of the whole event. Whether or not Mr. Arbery was innocent or not, Mr. Gregory McMichael had a duty to protect the life of Mr. Arbery, until Police Officers arrived and took control of the situation.

  6. Diane Dimond on May 25, 2020 at 11:39 am

    Reader dejalma writes:

    Getting that into it over a property crime — and not even your property — is plain stupid. But, looking at the photos, it makes sense.

  7. Diane Dimond on May 25, 2020 at 11:40 am

    Reader J. Dalton Greene writes:

    These 2 never imagined they would be going to prison, and meeting their new bunkmate BUBBA.

  8. Diane Dimond on May 25, 2020 at 11:40 am

    Reader John johnston writes:

    This sounds like two white guys took advantage of a situation which occurred more than once. Not sure who is at fault, but it is a tragedy that one person is dead regardless of the circumstances. God rest his soul.

  9. Diane Dimond on May 25, 2020 at 11:41 am

    Reader Paul Poole writes:

    A jogger? A jogger that trespassed looking for something to steal!! What a biased article. This reported also forgot about the guy that was arrested for filming the shooting of Arberry. Lame article….

    • Diane Dimond on May 25, 2020 at 11:45 am

      Mr. Poole:

      If there is evidence out there that Arbery was “looking for something to steal” it escaped my attention. He was seen wandering through a home that was under construction – a frame of a home, so to speak – so what could he be there to steal? And how would he have taken it away with no vehicle?
      As for the third arrest in this case – the man who was videotaping the confrontation and is now under arrest for conspiracy to murder? – That arrest occurred after I turned in this column. And that brings me to my final point. This is not a news article. This is an opinion column where I get to express my opinion. You, of course, are free to disregard it.

  10. Diane Dimond on May 25, 2020 at 12:05 pm

    Reader Malice aforethought writes:

    I would like to know if they even gave the police a chance to handle before taking these measures? Their group coordination make it look like it was planned not spur of the moment And much diff. from peeping tom situation they weren’t even protecting their own property right?

    • Diane Dimond on May 25, 2020 at 12:06 pm

      Diane replies to “Malice”:

      That’s right. The armed father-son pair had been following Mr. Arbery through the neighborhood with their truck. They were not protecting their own property.

  11. Diane Dimond on May 26, 2020 at 10:02 pm

    Reader Lucy Gottlieb writes:

    Shame on Georgia for having laws on the books over 150 years old. Citizens arrest should have a great many more instructions to what it entails. Should someone pursue somebody THEY THINK did something wrong? If you can use force to detain and then not be allowed to shoot you’re basically saying there is no citizens arrest

  12. Diane Dimond on May 26, 2020 at 10:04 pm

    Reader Roy Merritt writes:

    If the person is outside I would get my weapon and call the police. I would only use my weapon if the person forcibly entered.

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