Q: Ace, to what extent can someone take the law into their own hands? Are citizen’s arrests or citations legal in Virginia? Can I bust someone for littering or parking in the fire lane if they are returning videos or going to the liquor store? What about more serious crimes when you know the police will not act as quickly?—Goober from Mayberry
A: “There’s no such thing as citizen’s arrest,” Charlottesville Police Sgt. David Jones tells Ace. “Someone’s been watching too much ‘Mayberry.’” Alrighty, then. But his blunt answer left Ace wondering. Certainly there must be something to the idea of citizen’s arrests, as most people have heard of them. Just look at pop culture: In “The Andy Griffith Show,” a notable episode featured Don Knotts’ off-duty Deputy Barney Fife busting Jim Nabors’ Gomer Pyle for pulling an illegal U-turn, and Pyle returning the favor later screaming “Citizen’s arrest!” In the movie Coming to America, Eddie Murphy pulled a citizen’s arrest after busting a punk trying to rob the MacDowell’s fast food store. And who could forget Police Academy 4: Citizens on Patrol, in which everyday folks were encouraged to take part in the war on crime? Better yet, maybe we should all try to erase that from our collective memories.
A quick search of the Internet offers plenty of info on the legality of citizen’s arrests—but good luck finding any kind of consensus. The website constitution.org features an article by constitutional attorney David C. Grossack that traces the concept from medieval England to the American legal tradition. He argues citizen’s arrests are protected under the Ninth Amendment right of self-preservation, but that the statute varies per state.
A search of the State of Virginia’s website (virginia.gov) turns up a ruling from a 2003 Circuit Court of Chesterfield County case in which Judge T.J. Hauler ruled that a citizen’s arrest was legally performed in the stopping of a suspected drunk driver. (It’s important to point out, though, that the arresting individual was a plain-clothed, off-duty cop in a civilian car.)
So what’s the deal? Ace will level with you, Goober: There’s no simple answer. The City police say no, the Legal Aid Justice Center didn’t know, and a call Ace put in to the State police in Appomattox ended with a confused officer saying, “It’s complicated.”
That policeman, who would not give Ace his name, reminded Ace that the word “cop” derives from “citizens on patrol” (there’s that Police Academy reference again!), and that officers are just citizens with greater authority granted by the State Code. So if any citizen sees a crime being committed, he can technically get involved. But there are a variety of legal issues—warrants, magistrates, lawsuits, etc.—that need to be considered, and can end up making the cops’ jobs and the do-gooder’s life incredibly complicated.
Ace’s advice? If you see someone breakin’ the law, get on your cellphone or hoof it to the police station. We all appreciate your wanting to do the right thing, but when it comes to crime it’s best to leave it to the professionals. Unless you live in Mayberry, of course.