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Penal Code 837 PC - Citizen’s Arrest

Posted by Dmitry Gorin | Apr 06, 2024

Under California law, private citizens are authorized to arrest alleged perpetrators in specific circumstances defined under Penal Code 837 PC. Notably, if a private citizen decides to make an arrest, they can act alone or ask another person to help them. 

Before a citizen decides to make an arrest, they need to stop and consider that this right carries significant responsibilities and legal implications. Suppose a citizen makes an improper arrest. In that case, some potential civil and criminal liabilities may occur.

Penal Code 837 PC - Citizen’s Arrest in California
Penal Code 837 PC allows you to arrest a citizen, but only only certain circumstances.

Suppose a citizen makes a wrongful arrest using force. In that case, they might face criminal charges, such as Penal Code 242 PC battery, Penal Code 236 PC false imprisonment, or Penal Code 207 PC kidnapping.

The statutory language within California Penal Code 837 says, “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.”

In other words, as noted, California law allows people to make a citizen's arrest in limited situations. However, all citizens should be cautious, as a mistaken or false arrest can have serious consequences. Therefore, let's review this law further below.

When Can a Citizen Arrest Someone?  

California Penal Code 837 PC says a private person can make a citizen's arrest only in the following situations:

  • When another person commits or attempts to commit a misdemeanor offense in the citizen's presence;
  • When the citizen knows that someone committed a felony but not in their presence or
  • When a felony offense has been committed, and the citizen has reasonable cause to believe that the person did commit the crime.

Some common crimes where a citizen's arrest can apply include the following:

  • Penal Code 459.5 PC - shoplifting;
  • Penal Code 484 PC - petty theft;
  • Penal Code 647(f) PC - public intoxication;
  • Penal Code 647(b) PC - solicitation of prostitution;
  • Penal Code 314 PC - indecent exposure;
  • Penal Code 460 PC - residential burglary;
  • Penal Code 240 PC – assault;
  • Penal Code 242 PC - battery;
  • Penal Code 261 PC – rape;
  • Penal Code 187 PC – murder;
  • Health and Safety Code 11352 HS – drug sales.

What Is the Recommended Procedure for Making a Citizen's Arrest?

PC 837 does not provide specific instructions for arresting a citizen. Still, the criminal courts have recommended some best practices, such as the following: 

  • Clearly communicate to the person you are arresting;
  • Clearly tell them why you are making the arrest;
  • Clearly tell them you have the authority to make the arrest, such as that you observed the crime and
  • Tell them you already have or plan to call the police.

You should call 911 and explain the situation to get the police on the scene as quickly as possible.  A citizen's arrest is mainly to detain the alleged perpetrator until the police arrive.

Can a Citizen Use Reasonable Force?

Suppose the alleged perpetrator attempts to flee the scene.  In that case, the law allows private citizens to exert “reasonable force” to restrain them until the police arrive. 

So, what exactly is considered reasonable force? This crucial topic is determined on a case-by-case basis and entails the use of common sense. Suppose the force you use is deemed unreasonable or excessive after the fact. 

In that case, you could be subject to civil or criminal liability. Therefore, citizens who decide to make an arrest should try to avoid using force if possible. 

Are There Safety Concerns When Making a Citizen's Arrest?

Yes. There are some inherent risks when making a citizen's arrest. Below are some recommended tips: 

  • You should always avoid force if at all possible, but reasonable force is permitted when necessary, but it should be considered a last resort because improper use or excessive force could place you in jeopardy;
  • You should be mindful of safety issues. For example, if there is reason to believe that arresting a citizen would endanger anyone's safety or provoke violence, you should be very cautious or not make the arrest.  
  • Never engage in a dangerous chase. Chasing a suspect, whether on foot or in a vehicle, can cause harm or injuries.

What Is Some Essential Information to Know about a Citizen's Arrest?

Citizens must understand possible serious repercussions for making an improper citizen's arrest, such as when the person did not commit the crime, or you lacked probable to make the arrest.

Suppose you exceeded the legal grounds for making a citizen's arrest. In that case, you could be sued for any loss or damages, such as injuries, medical bills, lost wages, mental distress, etc. You could be criminally charged with false imprisonment if you did not have the authority to arrest. 

While California law gives you the legal authority to arrest a citizen under PC 837, you must use common sense and always be aware of the legal limitations.  

In other words, ask yourself if it's worth the risk. Never try to be a hero or ignore all safety concerns. Don't search for the perpetrator, as you are not a police officer.  

Don't chase the alleged perpetrator on foot or in a vehicle pursuit, as there is too much risk of placing others in danger. 

Never make a citizen's arrest unless you are an eyewitness to the crime or you have valid reasons to believe a felony crime was committed.  Make every effort to ensure your safety and the safety of others. You can contact our law firm for a case review by phone or through the contact form. Eisner Gorin LLP is based in Los Angeles, California.

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About the Author

Dmitry Gorin

Dmitry Gorin is a licensed attorney, who has been involved in criminal trial work and pretrial litigation since 1994. Before becoming partner in Eisner Gorin LLP, Mr. Gorin was a Senior Deputy District Attorney in Los Angeles Courts for more than ten years. As a criminal tri...

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