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What do state statutes have to say about the concept of “citizens’ arrest”?

Ben Steelman

North Carolina is apparently the only state in the Union that does not recognize “citizens’ arrest,” according to Wilmington lawyer Thom Goolsby, an adjunct professor at Campbell University’s school of law. Still, Goolsby added, the law gives individuals some powers that amount to almost the same thing.

The applicable laws are North Carolina General Statutes 15A-404 and 15A-405. The first statute states flatly that “No private person may arrest another person” except when assisting a law enforcement officer, at the officer’s request.

NCGS 15A-404 does go on to list a few exceptions: A private person may “detain” another person when that other person commits a felony, a breach of the peace, a crime involving physical injury to another person or theft or destruction of property. (One big category missing here, Goolsby noted, is drug-related offenses.)

HOWEVER, this illegal act must be committed in the private person’s presence (i.e. you have to see the illegal act yourself; you can’t just hear about it), the detention must be “in a reasonable manner considering the offense involved and the circumstances of the detention”; and it can last only long enough for someone to fetch a duly sworn law enforcement officer.

“You can’t just rope someone to a tree,” said Goolsby, who discusses legal issues in weekly segments for WECT’s “Carolina in the Morning” and WNTB radio, “The Big Talker.”

NCGS 15A-405 provides all sorts of legal protections for private individuals who aid law enforcement officers “to effect arrest or prevent escape,” including death benefits and freedom from liability for lawsuits (unless, of course, the arrest is “unreasonable”).

The point, to any would-be law enforcer, is to use extreme caution. You can stop someone you catch carrying your TV set out the back door at 3 a.m. — provided you call the law to pick up the crook. You can intervene to stop someone from assaulting another individual. (If you’re fighting back yourself, Goolsby noted, it’s self-defense.) In other cases, however, you might open yourself to potentially expensive civil lawsuits on a variety of grounds: false arrest, deprivation of liberty, defamation, etc.

When in doubt, your best advice is to call the cops.

User-contributed question by:
Bob Nichol

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