On Feb. 23, 2020, in Satilla Shores, Ga., a 25-year-old Black man named Ahmaud Arbery was jogging in his neighborhood when three white men began to chase him.
They had wrongly assumed he had been involved in burglarizing a home under construction and in a string of other alleged neighborhood burglaries.
So they decided to take the job of law enforcement into their own hands. The men chased Arbery for several minutes trying to corner him with their vehicles before one of the men shot and killed him.
There was no string of burglaries. And the owner of the home who witnessed Arbery on his property saw no need to file a complaint with police. The three men simply used these fabricated crimes, and their right to make a citizens arrest, to justify their racism-fueled murder of an innocent Black man.
The citizens arrest principle may also have played a part in the death of an unruly passenger on a New York City subway train in May, in which a 24-year-old white man placed the Black man in a choke hold and killed him. He and two others claimed self defense, even though witnesses said the victim hadn’t threatened or attacked anyone.
These kinds of incidents, often racially charged, are the impetus behind proposed state legislation to severely restrict the age-old practice of citizens arrests — in which regular citizens take it upon themselves to arrest another citizen for a crime.
Right now in New York, private individuals are entitled to arrest anyone, without a warrant, for any crime, at any time of the day, according to the legislation. In many cases, the arresting citizen doesn’t even have to give a reason for making the arrest.
In addition to the civil rights questions this practice raises, existing law also authorizes these private citizens to use “such physical force as is justifiable” to make the arrest. That gives people a lot of leeway to violate another citizens’ rights and to cause another person harm in the name of “justifiable” force. It also subjects the person making the citizens arrest to potential injury and death if their target decides to fight back.
Especially with racial tensions so high in this country, giving ordinary citizens virtually unlimited freedom to subdue another citizen is needlessly dangerous and potentially unconstitutional.
The proposed legislation (A0507/S0167) would significantly curb the right of citizens to make citizens arrests, limiting them to the use of physical force to prevent the escape of a person they “reasonably believe” to have committed a felony.
The bill does not impede a citizen’s right to defend themselves or others from a deadly threat.
Under the bill, individuals can use deadly physical force when they “reasonably believe” they or another individual is in danger of deadly physical force. So regular citizens can still protect one another and themselves under this bill.
Citizens arrest is an outdated concept that encourages racial profiling, deprives citizens of their rights and puts both the individual making the arrest and the one being arrested in potential danger.
Police undergo extensive training in citizens rights, the penal law and in how to safely engage, subdue and detain a criminal suspect. Ordinary citizens do not.
Except in rare circumstances when lives are in immediate danger, it’s best to let law enforcement do the job they were trained to do.