Ask Laz: Here’s when you can make a citizen’s arrest

Alan has a law-and-order-type question.

“I heard you can only perform a citizen’s arrest when someone is committing a felony,” he says. “Is that correct?”

This isn’t exactly a consumer issue, unless you’re the sort of person who feels a need to personally intervene if you witness someone shoplifting or simply won’t tolerate a bank robbery.

But Alan’s question is intriguing because it just seems like good information to know.

ASK LAZ: Smart answers to consumer questions

The short answer is, nope, that’s not correct. A citizen’s arrest can be made under various circumstances.


But first, a little history.

The idea of a member of the public going all Five-O dates back to medieval Britain, where local officials often relied on townspeople to help uphold the law. The practice spread as the Brits pursued their colonial ways.

Nowadays, each state has its own rules for citizen’s arrests. But in most cases, the general rules are that, if it’s a misdemeanor, the crime must have been committed in your presence. If it’s a felony, you can play Eliot Ness whether or not you were there when the crime took place.

In California, Penal Code Section 837 states that “a private person may arrest another: (1) For a public offense committed or attempted in his presence. (2) When the person arrested has committed a felony, although not in his presence. (3) When a felony has been in fact committed, and he has reasonable cause for believing the person arrested to have committed it.”

So the bottom line is that if you see a crime -- any crime -- you can do something about it. And if it’s a felony at issue, then do as you please.

Does this mean you actually should make a citizen’s arrest? My answer to that is an unequivocal no.

If you witness “a public offense,” go tell a police officer, or a store manager, or someone in charge. It’s really not your business beyond that.

As for felonies, get real. You’re talking about serious criminals now. Are these really the sort of folk you think you should be personally apprehending?

That said, if you ever get bitten by a radioactive spider, now you know you have some legal grounds for your superheroing.

But remember: With great power comes great responsibility.

If you have a consumer question, email me at or contact me via Twitter @Davidlaz.