VERIFY: When can you make a citizen's arrest?

A suspected drunk driver was stopped by Houstonians who took matters into their own hands, which sparked debate about when you can make a citizen's arrest.

HOUSTON - It’s the video that sparked a question of when it's OK to make a citizen's arrest.

On Monday, KHOU 11 News reported on a suspected drunk driver stopped by Houstonians who took matters into their own hands.

This jaw-dropping incident that occurred Saturday all went down on the streets of River Oaks. In this case, bystanders went home safely and the driver ended up in jail.

Related: Caught on Camera: Citizen's arrest on suspected drunk driver

So KHOU wanted to verify: When can someone legally make a citizen’s arrest, and when should they?

For many people, the words “citizen’s arrest” bring to mind images of Gomer Pyle in a classic episode of The Andy Griffith Show.

But in real life, a citizen’s arrest often looks more like what went down on the streets of River Oaks Saturday.

“I saw the right side of his car was gone, and he was going everywhere,” said Alejandro Fernandez during an interview Monday. “He almost hit me, and I was going the other way.”

Fernandez says after calling 911 and following an alleged drunk driver to a parking lot, he and others pulled the driver out of the car and held him until police showed up to take him to jail.

So when can someone legally make a citizens’ arrest, and when should they? To verify, KHOU consulted the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure and spoke with Gerald Treece, KHOU’s legal analyst, and Kese Smith, a spokesperson for the Houston Police Department.

State law says a peace officer or any other person can arrest someone if they see a felony or what’s called a “breach of the peace," which Treece says includes someone being beat up or a suspected drunk driver.

However, Treece says the person making the arrest must actually see the alleged crime taking place, as Fernandez and others did. Even though those Houstonians took matters into their own hands, Treece says, in most cases, it’s not a good idea.

“If I guess wrong, I could be held liable civilly and criminally for something called ‘false imprisonment,’” Treece said.

Treece says making a citizen’s arrest is not only a gamble with personal freedom, but also personal safety.

“Remember, bad guys in 2017 have far more weapons at their disposal,” he said. “The police are trained to handle these bad guys. You’re not.”

So KHOU can verify if someone in Texas witnesses either a felony or someone’s safety being put in danger, they can make a citizen’s arrest. But should they? In most cases, Treece and law enforcement say no.

In situations like the one on Saturday, Smith recommends following at a safe distance, as long as it’s safe to do so, and calling 911. As for making an arrest, he strongly recommends leaving law enforcement to the officers.

So what happens if someone’s safety is at risk, 911 has been called, but officers haven’t shown up yet? Smith called that situation a “judgment call” for the witness, who can evaluate the situation and their own conscience. 

For those who decide to act, Smith recommends using caution but says he and others at HPD cannot recommend making an arrest.

VERIFY: Sources

Texas Code of Criminal Procedure

Gerald Treece, KHOU 11 legal analyst

Kese Smith, Houston Police Department spokesperson

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© 2017 KHOU-TV


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