Citizen’s Arrest

The Arbery case raises a lot of questions about how we should pursue criminal justice.

The primary purpose of this post is to examine profiling, the extent to which private citizens can act similar to police officers, the proportionality of the use of force to restrain a possible suspect, and to what extent a person can defend themselves when a neighbor wrongfully but ignorantly confronts them with weapons like guns, baseball bats, etc.  

Racial profiling is defined as “the act of suspecting or targeting a person of a certain race on the basis of observed or assumed characteristics or behavior of a racial or ethnic group, rather than on individual suspicion.” 

But not all profiling of a person with certain ethnic traits is really true racial profiling.

A surveillance camera caught the appearance of a burglary suspect.
The McMichaels believed Arbery matched the appearance of this suspect.
Profiling is when you have a reasonable suspicion that a person might be the suspect in question based on a few corresponding observations.

Racial profiling is evil primarily because it often goes beyond reasonable suspicion to improperly assumed guilt about a person when there is no evidence to substantiate such a claim.

The profiling that the McMichaels seemed to have performed really is not true racial profiling because it is not motivated by racial intent.  They were not out to kill an innocent black man. They did not have premeditated malicious intent.  They just wanted to act like police officers and stop and hold this criminal suspect until law enforcement arrived.

Now one could question the legitimacy of private citizens acting like overzealous wannabe cops, but this would then bring us to our question of under what circumstances should a citizen’s arrest be performed.

Georgia’s courts have previously ruled that while a citizen can detain someone, a citizen’s arrest doesn’t necessarily allow for uses of force.

This sounds reasonable, but what happens in cases where the suspect is armed and threatens the life of the citizen trying to assist in the arrest?

One might say this situation is why private citizens should just wait for the proper authorities to arrive. But this course of action often decreases the likelihood that the culprit will be caught in time for him or her to face justice. In light of this observation, is there ever any cases in which it might be permissible for seeing a suspect jogging down the street, assuming he might be the culprit, grabbing a gun for self-protection, and chasing him down to assist police officers?

Is it always wrong to do this or are there cases and circumstances where it might be permissible for private citizens to act similar to cops provided certain protocols are followed to minimize the chances of wrongly killing an innocent person?

After all, Georgia’s citizen’s arrest law requires that the offender must have committed a crime in the presence of another person, or that person must have “immediate knowledge” of a crime that has taken place by the perpetrator. These stipulations certainly help constrain and reduce the possibility of arbitrary vigilante justice. This stipulation of immediacy certainly helps reduce the likelihood of situations happening where a person has to defend himself when a neighbor wrongfully but ignorantly confronts them with weapons like guns, baseball bats, etc.

The very difficult aspect of a citizen’s arrest is knowing the force proportionate to the circumstance. Ideally the only force reasonable under the circumstances may be used to restrain the individual arrested. However, in the fog and chaos of chasing or fighting a possible perpetrator, such rational judgments are not always possible. 

Private citizens effectively share in the same risks and responsibilities as police officers when confronting a person of suspicion.

In 2004, a convenience store owner shot an intruder who broke into the store after the store owner told him to halt.  Even though the store owner was right in attempting to stop the intruder, the measure of force used was disproportionate to the circumstance.  But in such a situation, it’s not always easy to potentially let the suspect go free and in the immediacy of the situation milder forms of restraint do not always come to mind or become accessible or present.

In 2017, a citizen may chase a neighbor whom he believes had burglarized his home and attack the man with a baseball bat. A problem exists when gentler methods of restraint could be used, especially in light of the fact the neighbor could have been truly innocent and thus did not need to suffer physical abuse.

In the Arbery case, the McMichaels brought guns just in case the suspect was armed and they themselves had a way to defend themselves.  But at the same time, Arbery was innocent and also wanted to defend himself against the guns that his neighbors brought and so he fought back.  This situation brings up a big gray area.

Citizens have a right to defend themselves in cases of arresting a possibly armed subject.
Yet innocent people also have a right to defend themselves when a stranger confronts them with guns.

Even though we should do our best to protect innocent people from wrongful harm or death, it is also necessary to have protocols in place that allows even private citizens the best chance of arresting a possible suspect to bring him to justice.  But balancing these two interests requires a lot of fine-tuning.

I do not necessarily have the answers to these questions, but it’s important to ask these types of questions in the first place.