Can being a have-a-go hero land you in trouble with the law?

21st November 2018

Recent footage of police officers being attacked whilst trying to apprehend two alleged criminals has caused outrage within police ranks with Ken Marsh, chairman of the Metropolitan Police Federation, asking the public to stop filming these types of incidents – and to step in and help instead. But can being a have-a-go hero land you in hot water with the law?

What are members of the public allowed to do, and not do, when it comes to apprehending or detaining criminals?

Citizens are encouraged to assist in the prevention and investigation of crime where it is responsibly done and in the public spirit. A citizen may only use reasonable and proportionate force to apprehend or detain a person if there is no possibility of a police officer doing this instead. The purpose is to uphold the law rather than taking the law into their own hands for revenge, retribution or vigilantism.

There is no specific wording to use when making a citizen’s arrest. However you must inform the person you are arresting of what you are doing, why you are doing it, and what offence you believe they have committed as soon as possible. You can only use reasonable force throughout this process, and you should call and deliver the person to the police immediately.

Could someone get into trouble with the authorities for making a citizen’s arrest?

Whilst the courts are sympathetic to citizens acting in the public spirit and exercising their powers and rights, there is the potential for personal prosecution or a civil litigation claim if they are perceived to have overstepped the boundaries of what is reasonable and proportionate. If the powers and rights are used incorrectly, a person could find themselves having to defend a claim for assault, unlawful restraint, wrongful arrest and/or false imprisonment.

Are people allowed to use force to detain someone who is trying to flee?

A citizen may only use reasonable and proportionate force to detain a person if there is no possibility of a police officer doing this instead. The amount of force must be reasonable and necessary, and this will depend on the facts surrounding each individual case. There is a fine line between reasonable force and assault so if a citizen decides to intervene, they would need to do so carefully.

Could someone be held legally accountable if an alleged criminal is injured during a citizen’s arrest?

If an alleged criminal is injured during a citizen’s arrest, there is a risk of personal prosecution for assault or civil litigation for a personal injury claim. It would not be advisable to act alone as the alleged criminal may later accuse you of assault, and it could ultimately become one person’s word against the other. Witness evidence, video or sound recording would be beneficial in these circumstances in case you have to justify your actions to the police or the crown prosecution service.

What is a citizen’s arrest and is it legal?

A person other than a police officer may arrest a person without a warrant in certain circumstances. Section 24A of The Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 provides that:

  • Anybody can arrest a person who is committing an indictable offence.
  • Anybody can arrest a person if they have reasonable grounds to suspect that they are committing an indictable offence.
  • Where an indictable offence has been committed, a citizen may arrest anyone who is guilty of the offence or anyone whom he has reasonable grounds for suspecting to be guilty of it.

This power is conditional as long as there are reasonable grounds to believe the arrest is necessary and it is not reasonably practicable for a police officer to make the arrest.

An indictable offence is one that can be tried in a Crown Court, in front of a jury. They are normally the most serious of offences but examples can include substantial criminal damage, robbery and assault occasioning actual bodily harm.

Disclaimer: This information is for general guidance regarding rights and responsibilities and is not formal legal advice as no lawyer-client relationship has been created.

Hannah Parsons

Legal Advice Manager, Solicitor

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