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“There’s many a slip ’twixt the cup and the lip”
—An old English proverb
One of my FBI associates made an interesting and astute observation in his recent letter to the editor: “North Carolina does not recognize a ‘citizen’s arrest.’”
Apparently, he is right.
In regard to the natural inclination of our good citizens to “put the arm” on those committing criminal acts, I make the following observations and recommendations for the purpose of highlighting the challenges and liabilities accruing to those who want to detain suspected criminals while the police are en route.
North Carolina law
Browsing the Internet relative to the topic “Citizen’s Arrest North Carolina” will reveal numerous references. General Statutes 15A-404 and 405 apply to the subject.
North Carolina General Statutes does not provide for “Citizen Arrest,” but instead provides for “detention of offenders by private persons.”
This topic is complex, and is worthy of a two-hour block of legal instruction. My article is only intended to whet your appetite for participation in the Brunswick County Sheriff’s Office Citizens’ Academy.
Call the sheriff’s office at 253-2777 for information.
When good intentions go bad
A friend recently related a story about an elderly Florida woman.
She was headed for her car in a dim parking lot with bags of groceries. As she arrived at the car, she found it occupied by a couple of young men. She dropped the bags and pulled a large old revolver from her coat pocket and yelled, “Get out of the car! I know how to use this thing!”
The doors swung open and the two men scattered like leaves in the wind. She gathered up the groceries and put them in the backseat. While getting seated behind the steering wheel, she noticed the front passenger floor had a cold six-pack and a football. These items were not hers.
Then she found her ignition key did not fit. Moments later she located her car half a dozen spaces away.
Feeling guilty about her mistake, she went directly to the nearby police station to confess.
The desk sergeant chuckled as she related the story. He motioned to the end of the counter where two bug-eyed young men were reporting an elderly woman had just carjacked them in a nearby parking lot.
Fortunately, story ended favorably for the woman, no charges were filed.
The April 11, 1986, FBI Miami shoot-out pitted two heavily armed well-trained bank robbers against eight lightly armed FBI special agents. Of the 10 participants, only one emerged from the battle unharmed.
The incident is a sad chapter in FBI history and presents many lessons for anyone considering arresting or detaining criminal suspects.
Based on a search warrant, authorities attempted service on the Branch Davidian compound at Waco, Texas.
Between Feb. 28 and April 19, 1993, the ATF and FBI engaged the Davidians wherein five Davidians and four ATF agents were killed in a firefight.
It all ended when 75 Davidians, including 21 children, were killed in an ensuing fire engulfing the compound.
The TV program “Cops” presents dozens of mistakes made by trained professionals engaged in arrests and detentions of offenders.
The show is a good vehicle for learning what actually works and what does not in the administration of criminal justice on the street.
When a law enforcement officer makes an arrest without another officer(s) present, I cringe at the increased prospect of the offender resisting the officer. Or worse, the officer resorts to the use of excessive force or a lethal weapon to win a shoving match.
My old police chief got tired of answering complaints against his officers. He noted most of the complaints alleging police brutality stemmed from instances where the officer made an arrest without a backup officer(s) present.
In police circles this is known as the “John Wayne Complex.”
So he mandated no arrest would be made before the backup responded along with the duty supervisor. That stopped it. Those not in compliance got days off without pay. Repeated offenses led to the officer being fired.
The three deadly horsemen
They are over-confidence, lack of equipment and lack of training. The horsemen are present in some form in the aforementioned “slips.”
These deadly circumstances are difficult enough for trained professionals to overcome, but extending the powers of detention and arrest to untrained private citizens is an open invitation for serious civil and criminal liability.
Law enforcement agencies carry expensive insurance policies to protect the government against devastating lawsuits. The rest of us must rely on patience and common sense to ensure our personal safety.
It would be wise for the North Carolina General Assembly to review certain laws from time to time to ascertain if they are in the best interests of the people—namely, laws pertaining to arrest and detention powers for private citizens and “structured sentencing.”
Meanwhile, it would be prudent for citizens to dial 911 before seeking direct intervention in the detention of an offender.
While the law enforcement officer is on the way, gather as much detail as possible for the officer when they arrive.
That will minimize the “slip twixt the cup and the lip”.
John Heidtke has been employed by municipal, county, state, federal and international law enforcement agencies since 1963.