Proposal To End Citizens’ Arrests In New York Is More Confusing Than Clarifying

We don’t disagree with Sen. Michael Gianaris’ efforts to end citizens’ arrests in New York state.

Subduing someone suspected of a crime is difficult for those with proper training and equipment, much less a member of the general public.

There may have been a time for citizens’ arrests at a time when it was difficult to find a way to contact police when someone saw a crime being committed. Now, with cell phones with video cameras in everyone’s hip pocket it’s easier than ever to be in contact with police and to share information with them. That should, in theory, lessen the need for citizens to try to detain someone if they see a crime being committed.

The main issue with Gianaris’ bill, which passed the state Senate last week for the third consecutive year but hasn’t yet passed the state Assembly, is that it makes the law more confusing instead of less confusing.

Gianaris’ bill removes reference to a private person’s ability to use physical force to effect an arrest or escape from custody as well as any citizens arrests involving youth, but a person could use physical force against someone believed to have committed a felony or who is in immediate flight from a felony. A person can also use deadly force to defend themselves or a third person from another person’s use or imminent use of deadly physical force. In other words, someone considering a citizen’s arrest has to be sure a felony is being committed or face charges themselves. Who walks around carrying a book of local and state criminal codes for reference? What is the definition of imminent use of deadly force?

Gianaris’ bill is better than the status quo, but leaving the felony provisions creates a difficult situation for those who want to respond when they see what they think is a felony but may actually be a misdemeanor. The phrase “If you see something, say something” may need an addendum — don’t do anything unless you’re a lawyer.


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