The Edgar County Watchdogs shocked the country when they arrested an entire Clark County, IL park district board for refusing to allow public comment at a meeting. The Board attorney was so stunned that she advised the park board members they could leave and ignore the citizens, that is until the Sheriff took each of the board members into custody. The board then sued the Watchdogs, lost, and was ordered to pay the defendants legal fees.
The Edgar County Watchdogs aren’t your typical astroturf group, either. As their Forbes profile points out, neither of the founders are lawyers, elected officials, or wealthy. Neither have any law enforcement experience. Both were fed-up enough with corruption in their home state that they decided to do something about it, in 22 months successfully forcing over 100 elected officials to resign or flee their posts. An impressive resume to add to their already impressive citizen’s arrest.
Citizen’s arrests are considered a rarity by most activists, but one must remember that every time a citizen stops a crime, whether it’s defending themselves or another from a robbery, stopping a looter, or tackling a purse-snatcher they have lawfully committed a citizen’s arrest. In fact, the idea has been around since 1066. Laws in over 40 states specifically protect citizen’s arrests, and in other states common law governs this very important practice. In fact, citizen’s power of arrest helps lessen the need for law enforcement and reduce crime. As Elkhart County Sheriff Bradley Rogers put it:
“Law enforcement officers are public servants that provide law enforcement, including arrests, protection and service to our community. However, this is not a police state. We don’t have, nor do we want, a police officer on every corner. Sometimes, citizens are in a position to choose to intervene in a criminal act where law enforcement officers are not present.”
For the purposes of this article, however, we’re going to focus on politicians, who are not only more likely to violate a person’s human rights than the average person, but also more likely to get away with it. The question, then, becomes: how exactly can you perform a citizen’s arrest on someone abusing their position of political authority?
Glad you asked. Start by watching the astounding video of the Edgar County Watchdogs’ citizens arrest of the Clark County, Illinois park board in May:
Now, here’s how to duplicate it in your community.
1. Know the grounds for arrest.
Citizen’s arrests, or arrests by a “private person” are protected in all 50 states, and the District of Columbia. Though by and large this right to perform temporary arrests is respected in every state, the grounds for that arrest vary widely depending on the state you live in. Up until last week, there was no database of citizen’s arrest laws by state anywhere on the internet. So we created one. This is a list of every state citizen’s arrest statute in the United States, complete with accompanying information such as Attorney General opinions, judicial rules, and corresponding case law.
The statutes vary in authority and protection from California’s, which protects a citizen from legal action when they make an arrest for any public offense committed in their presence, to Ohio’s, which specifically requires a felony to be committed in the citizen’s presence in order for a citizen’s arrest to be legal. Some popular restrictions include:
a. “In their presence.” This restriction requires a citizen’s arrest to be made immediately after the criminal action was committed in the person’s physical presence. i.e. one cannot see an offense committed in their presence, and then arrest that person days later.
b. “Require the person’s immediate arrest.” This restriction restricts private persons from making an arrest if that arrest would not prevent another crime, loss of life, or loss of property from immediately happening. Thus, while you might be able to arrest a Montana councilwoman before they sign a document illegally taking property, you would not be able to do it after, a the circumstances no longer require their immediate arrest.
c. “Misdemeanor breach of the peace.” Significantly different from a misdemeanor, a misdemeanor breach of the peace requires a disruption of public order. That definition varies by state, but persons attempting arrests under this restriction should be sure that their actions could be argued to either punish a current or prevent a future disruption of public peace.
d. “Felony.” This is the most popular restriction, present in almost half of the state statutes we reviewed. It requires a felony to have been committed in the private person’s presence before they can make an arrest.
You can review your state statutes here. If your state does not have a statute, it is governed by common law, allowing for arrests of felonies and misdemeanors. However, since case law in some states has reduced this to felonies only, we recommend only making an arrest when you know a felony has been committed if your state does not have a statutes to the contrary.
2. Know the punishments for the crime you’re attempting an arrest for.
If your state requires a felony to be committed, ensure that before you make an arrest, a felony has been committed. As a good rule of thumb, if you need to make a heat of the moment decision, violent crimes are almost always felonies. If you can, consult an attorney in your state for advice before attempting an arrest, but at the very least consult your state’s criminal code.
3. Know the risks.
Citizens are granted far less legal protection than peace officers in arrest situations. Whereas if a peace officer reasonable believes someone has committed a crime, and it is later found that they did not, the officer was considered to being doing their job, a private person can face a civil lawsuit for false imprisonment. If the citizen uses physical force, they can face assault charges and more. If at all possible, do not use physical force, or try to restrain a public official you have placed under arrest. Citizen’s arrests can make a powerful statement that you will not allow elected officials to act as an elite class. However, ensure you are within the law so you don’t bring harm down on yourself.
4. Bring multiple recording devices.
In court, and the media, both an officer and a public official’s testimony is going to be considered far more credible than yours. However, a camera or other recording can turn the tables. Bring multiple recording devices to cover your interaction, and it will not only garner you public support, but help defeat a lawsuit from the now disgraced politician.
5. When making the arrest, have a copy of the relevant statutes in hand, and do it politely.
Unlike an officer, who will be justified in both the courts and the court of public opinion for using rough language, force, and other taboos for private persons during an arrest, you will not have that luxury. Although in the heat of the moment it may not always be possible to have copies of the law on hand, try to have a citizens arrest statute handy every time you attend a public meeting, or meet with a public official in any capacity.
Further, be polite, Note how, in the video above, the Watchdogs politely informed the board that they should submit to custody, pointed out who needed to submit to that arrest, and did so in a clear, concise manner.
6. Clearly state that the subject is under citizen’s arrest, and why, then immediately call 911 to hand them over to law enforcement.
In almost every state (except North Carolina, where you must call it a “detention”) a private person making an arrest must inform the arrestee(s) that they are subject to arrest, the reasons for that, and immediately hand them over to law enforcement personnel. For your safety, as well, call 911 immediately after the arrest to hand the subject over.
7. Publicize the arrest.
Grab a sample press release here, and take news of your successful corruption-busting arrest to your local newspaper, tv stations, and social media. Things like this make headlines and garner you the public support necessary to ensure that the citizen’s arrest not only results in charges, but forces your local, state, and federal officials to finally clean up their act.
Now go bust some corruption.
Dan Johnson is the President and Founder of the Solutions Institute. Want to discuss this topic more? Invite Dan on your radio show, to your group, or just send him an email at thesolutionsinstitute [at] gmail.com.
The Solutions Institute only takes one position: good ideas do not require force. Otherwise, each article published at the Solutions Institute is chosen for its focus on the process and how-to instruction. Any opinions expressed on any other issue, by any author or commenter, are strictly their own. Learn more.