It’s late at night, and I’m watching a video of a scuffle between a man in a grocer’s uniform and a woman whose jacket he’s desperately clinging to. She’s lazily trying to escape, talking on the phone and fully ignoring him as he yanks on her arm and yells “Call nine-eleven!” to someone who appears to be just outside of the shot.
“You’re under arrest,” he says to her in an unblinking monotone as she makes a feeble effort to jerk her arm away. For a moment, it looks like she’s resigned herself to his capture, but then, in a stunning moment of strength, she makes a break for it, nearly dragging him over a short fence in the process. It’s all he can do to hang on as she throttles him like a ragdoll.
The title of the video (“Citizen’s Arrest part 1”) makes it perfectly clear what’s going on here — he’s trying to perform a citizen’s arrest on her for shoplifting — but watching them tussle is so awkward that I start to cringe. Who does this ordinary man think he is trying to do the job of a cop, and why does he think she’ll take his attempt to arrest her seriously? More importantly, why can’t I look away?
For the uninitiated, citizen’s arrests gives everyday civilians like you and me the same legal rights as police to detain someone for committing a crime. According to Ira P. Robbins, a law professor at American University who wrote one of the few academic articles on the topic for the Cornell Journal of Law and Public Policy, they were originally developed in medieval England to compensate for the lack of an organized police force and were meant to be issued with what was called a “hue and cry.”
I’ll spare you the history lesson, but here’s what that meant: If you saw someone committing a crime, it was your god-given duty to alert “nearby able-bodied men” who could assist you in the perpetrator’s arrest. If the suspect resisted, you and your men were expected to follow them from town to town, hooting and hollering until more able-bodied men joined in and delivered the offending wrongdoer to the sheriff. Basically, you were supposed to make a scene.
Flash forward to present day, and citizen’s arrests aren’t much different than they were back then. But while we’ve since done away with the “able-bodied” man meet-up requirement, it appears we’re committed as ever to the idea that exercising our right to arrest each other means we can do so by going absolutely buckwild.
The proof is on YouTube, where I can guarantee you that nearly every citizen’s arrest video you find will feature three elements of chaos that recall the original law’s call for spectacle. The first is a rabid do-gooder possessed by the spirit of rabid do-goodery who’s taken it upon themselves to enforce the law through a questionable, often dangerous combination of chasing, rage-yelling and interpersonally awkward touch. The second is another person — possibly a criminal, possibly not — who’s trying, understandably, to escape. Most people don’t know they can be arrested by non-police — or at the very least, they won’t take the arrest seriously. Which brings me to the third element: a cringeworthy scuffle between the two. Because so few people understand the ins and outs of citizen’s arrests, the interaction is almost always like the one mentioned above: strained, weird and kind of embarrassing. This, of course, is where the fail videos come in.
Type “citizen’s arrest fail” into YouTube and you’ll find an absolute goldmine of botched arrests, misguided stabs at justice and totally sincere attempts at laying down the law, all from people who lack the tools, training or experience to do so. I can’t quite put my finger on what’s so absorbing about them, but given the immense, well-documented satisfaction that comes from watching fail videos in general, I’d say it has something to do with that.
And the fails are epic. Watching them is like sitting in on a bad game of real-life cops and robbers where everyone’s on oxy and no one’s clear on the rules, except the only ones playing are adults with a Captain America sense of right and wrong, whose burning desire to be the hero is so earnest and unnecessary that the only thing you can do is stare in awe.
Most of my favorite examples are within this citizen’s arrest cringe compilation. It was my gateway drug into this fucked-up world, and I offer it to you now in the hope that you’ll join me there one day. But first, a little taste of what’s inside:
- A woman who tries to citizen’s arrest a cop for parking illegally, then has an uncomfortably apologetic conversation with him when he politely declines to be detained.
- A woman who wanders onto the stage during a presentation and whispers “Citizen’s arrest for treason” to nobody in particular as she’s gently dragged behind a curtain.
- A woman inside a courthouse attempting to citizen’s arrest a person who isn’t even there. “This is a citizen’s arrest!” she screams.“Though you’ll likely take it as jest, your crimes are felonious!”
When you’re done, check out this person who unsuccessfully tries to citizen’s arrest a cop for speeding:
And this guy who tries to run a policeman off the road while screaming “Citizen’s arrest!” at him through his rolled-down window:
As someone who will probably never attempt this style of amateur law enforcement, I can’t possibly imagine what’s going on in the minds of any of these people, yet I’m fascinated by their thought process. Who amongst us believes themselves to be such a hero? Whose confidence and sense of good and evil is so delusionally binary that they’d put themselves in harm’s way just to make sure the bad guy didn’t get away? That’s not a feeling I can relate to at all — if I were to stumble across a robbery or a hit-and-run, my first move would be to prance nervously in place for 20 to 30 seconds before cry-peeing, only after which I’d call the cops. But citizen’s arrestor types? They don’t overthink it. They just act.
“Your mind just kind of goes blank,” says Ray, a 31-year-old bartender who once had to put his “knee in the chest” of guy groping women at his bar and stayed like that for a full 10 minutes until the police arrived. “The only thing I was thinking was, ‘This guy is harassing people. Don’t let him get away.’”
Fine, but why did he feel it was on him to assume that responsibility? Why take an awkward, uncomfortable 10-minute knee to someone’s chest cavity instead of just calling the cops and giving them the best description of what was going on? “I’m not sure,” he says, his voice trailing off. “Like I said, I just reacted.”
Don’t get me wrong — there are times when this approach to law enforcement works. Richard Ramirez, the infamous serial killer who went by the name of “The Night Stalker,” was apprehended via citizen’s arrest. And for every fail video, there’s another telling the heroic stories of everyday people standing up to thieves and assailants by sitting on their chests, fastening them to poles with packing tape, taking them down without losing their cigarettes and tackling them while wearing full-on superhero costumes (a little on the nose with that last one).
Yet in spite of their occasional usefulness, most people still think seem to think citizen’s arrests are, well, kind of dumb (which is also why they make great YouTube fodder). YouTuber Dee Shanell went on a great rant about how ridiculous they are in a reaction video to the cringe compilation I mentioned earlier (“You trying to arrest me, random-ass person on the street? Excuse me, no. That’s just someone doing way too fucking much”), and many journalists have come to the conclusion that they make for little more than “humorous, ineffective crime control.” Meanwhile, as if to prove to myself that citizen’s arrests are as tiny and bizarre as I think they are, I posted a thread on Reddit asking people what they thought of them. Are they necessary? Pathetic? Just an excuse to hug violently?
The responses I got back confirmed my suspicions. While some people correctly stated that they can be useful in some situations, most seemed to think they were “stupid,” “funny-looking” and “bordering on mythological.”
“You can’t chase someone down and yell ‘citizen’s arrest!’ and expect to get taken seriously,” throwawaytokeep1 writes.
Yet, people do! In what’s probably the greatest citizen’s arrest fail of all time, ex-BBC producer Fergus Beeley can be seen doling out berserk bellows of “You’re under a citizen’s arrest! You’re under a citizen’s arrest! You’re under citizen’s arrest!” to a family of four like some sort of upside-down version of Oprah’s “You get a car!” Judging by the cubic diameter of the veins popping out of his forehead and the increasing decibels shrieking out of his voice box, Beeley seems to think his threat of arrest has actual weight, as if simply incanting the magic words “citizen’s arrest” would make it real.
Shocker: That’s not how that works at all. As criminal defense lawyer Lou Shapiro confirms, you can’t just arrest someone with a “citizen’s arrest!” war cry, nor do you have the right to detain them simply because they pissed you off. There are rules of engagement, like that you have to have probable cause a crime is being committed and that you cannot use a disproportionate amount of force. For example, if you’re trying to citizen’s arrest your professor for “controlling your mind” like Jonathan Pendleton did to George Mason University’s Tyler Cowen in 2014, you probably don’t need to mace and handcuff him in the middle of a lecture. That’s not a “citizen’s arrest,” that’s just assault.
And what about the person you’re arresting? Well, unlike a police arrest, they don’t have to comply. According to Shapiro, they’re under no obligation to put up with your Captain America bullshit, and they’re free to ignore you or defend themselves as they see fit. The only time someone you’re citizen’s arresting actually has to take you seriously is if you instruct a cop to arrest them (though it seems few cops are taking suggestions from the peanut gallery). Some of the biggest citizen’s arrest fails stem from this exact issue — earlier this year, for instance, mob boss Franceso “Frank” Cali was murdered by a QAnon conspiracy theorist named Anthony Comello for refusing to be citizen’s arrested inside his own home.
Such incidents are clearly far more serious than a “fail,” which is why experts like Robbins believe it’s high time citizen’s arrests be wiped off the legislative map. “The circumstances are potentially dangerous, and the laws (which are jurisdiction-specific) are complicated and can often subject the arrester to legal liability,” he writes. “The potential abuses associated with citizen’s arrests outweigh its uses.”
Shapiro agrees: “I’m afraid we’re watching far too many Marvel movies to be able to make an impartial decision about who to arrest and when. That decision should really be left to the professionals.”