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Can citizens hold a suspect in place?

On Behalf of | Oct 9, 2023 | CRIMINAL LAW - Criminal Defense

Generally, no one has the authority to make an arrest except for law enforcement officers. However, there are cases where an individual unlawfully detains another person they suspect without having any legal authority to do so. This is false imprisonment. Unless they satisfy the conditions in the law, private citizens, including mall security guards, generally cannot detain another individual.

Understanding what constitutes false imprisonment may prevent citizens from committing the crime.

What is false imprisonment?

Putting someone in false imprisonment means limiting their freedom of movement against their will without legal justification. If the person detaining another uses force or threats, they could also face unwanted touching or assault charges.

For example, bank robbers may be guilty of false imprisonment when they seal off all exits and use the threat of violence to keep individuals inside. Similarly, even mall security officers could commit false imprisonment if they hold someone without enough proof.

Other examples of false imprisonment include:

  • Using physical barriers to keep a person in one area
  • Locking car doors to prevent a person from leaving
  • Detaining a suspected thief for an unreasonable amount of time
  • Threatening others with violence if they try to escape

There are very few instances where ordinary citizens can detain a person legally.

When can citizens make an arrest?

In Maryland, citizens may only arrest an individual when the following elements are in place:

  1. They witness the individual committing a felony, such as robbery or rape, in their presence.
  2. They have probable cause to believe that the subject committed a felony outside their presence.
  3. The individual commits a misdemeanor in their presence that disrupts public peace.

In addition, citizens cannot use force to restrain a perpetrator. They would need to find another way to hold the suspect in place.

What can citizens do to avoid risk?

Given the risks, performing a citizen’s arrest is not advisable, whether for self-defense or for the good of the community. The person detained may react in a manner that endangers the life of the citizen making the arrest and potentially the lives of others. If they are innocent, they could sue for false imprisonment, assault or even kidnapping.

If a citizen witnesses a crime, it is best not to intervene directly. Instead, it is safer to call the police immediately and let them handle the situation.