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Citizen’s Arrests in Florida


As has been widely reported, the New Black Panther Party is offering a $10,000 “dead or alive” bounty for the capture of George Zimmerman. Obviously, killing Zimmerman would be illegal, but there’s been some online speculation about Florida and “citizen’s arrests,” a term the Panthers have used to describe what they’re seeking.

Most states have statutes regarding citizen’s arrests, but in Florida such arrests are governed by the common law. Unfortunately, there isn’t a whole lot of case law pertaining to private citizens who arrest each other — almost always, in Florida, the citizen’s-arrest rules come up in cases of police officers who make arrests outside their jurisdiction.

Language similar to this often appears in these cases:

A private citizen does have the common law right to arrest a person who commits a felony in his presence, or to arrest a person where a felony has been committed, and where the arresting citizen has probable cause to believe, and does believe, the person arrested to be guilty. Even though there was time to obtain a warrant, a private citizen may make such an arrest and justify his failure to obtain a warrant by proving the person arrested was actually guilty of a felony. 

This seems to place an arrest of Zimmerman on very shaky ground. Has “a felony been committed”? Only if Zimmerman’s story of self-defense is false — it might be, but I haven’t been able to turn up any Florida precedent as to how a court would approach this question. (Some paraphrases of this standard take the form of “probable cause to believe the person has committed a felony,” which changes the meaning a bit — in the more common wording quoted above, the existence of a felony must be a fact, and “probable cause to believe” pertains only to the question of whether the suspect committed that felony.) Further, wherever Zimmerman is, it appears he’s not going anywhere, and every indication thus far is that he’s cooperating with the police, so there’s plenty of time to get a warrant — any arrester would be burdened with “proving” Zimmerman guilty, which obviously is turning out to be a very difficult task.

Also, because the case law is so sparse, it does not appear to address the question of what happens when a citizen makes an arrest even though the relevant authorities have made a conscious decision not to make an arrest. The purpose of a citizen’s arrest is to facilitate the arrests of felons when the police are not there to do the arresting — the New Black Panthers are asking for something entirely different, but I haven’t come across the distinction in any of the cases I’ve read.

And following a legal citizen’s arrest, you have to call the police immediately. Presumably, they’d just show up and let Zimmerman go.