Calling police is better than citizen's arrest

Possibility exists for injury, legal action

Georgia law gives you permission to detain someone who breaks the law -- even if you didn't see it happen.

But actually performing a citizen's arrest opens up a world of legal and criminal liability, not to mention the possibility of serious injury.

In separate incidents this year, a suspected car thief and a citizen were shot when someone interrupted an alleged crime.

Both highlight the physical risks of taking action before police arrive, but what often goes unrecognized is the possibility of an arrest for false imprisonment or a civil lawsuit.

"If you're right, you're OK. If you're wrong, then it's a bad situation," explained Richmond County Solicitor General Charles Evans.

On Oct. 25, a man chased after a burglar ransacking his brother's truck in the 1100 block of Glenwood Drive in the National Hills neighborhood. The burglar turned and fired, hitting the victim, Christopher Hoops, 23, in the chest.

In August, a man chased a burglar reportedly rifling through his neighbor's car and shot the suspected thief in the chest. Attorney Christopher Corley said his client, Milo Hayes, was badly injured by the gunshot and disputes the version of events provided by investigators.

Corley wouldn't get into specifics until Hayes' "legal issues" are resolved but said what the shooter, Brete Gunby, did was not a citizen's arrest. Gunby was not charged in the shooting; Hayes was charged with entering an automobile.

"Our version is certainly different," Corley said.

Georgia law gives a person the authority to arrest someone for an offense committed in his presence or "within his immediate knowledge." South Carolina permits basically the same, with an added clause allowing lethal force if the arrest is made at night.

Evans said the law is clear, but "actually executing (it) in public is a very dangerous thing to do." An unnecessary or poorly executed citizen's arrest opens a person to criminal arrest for charges including false imprisonment and simple battery. It could also result in a civil lawsuit if a person is injured.

Evans strongly suggests instead calling law enforcement before taking any action because police have more training and more protection under the law to enforce an arrest.

What if action seems absolutely necessary? Say, for instance, you're pumping gas and see an obviously intoxicated driver about to drive away.

"There is a moral fine line," Evans said, but be absolutely sure you're ready to follow through with your action.

Lt. Tim Pearson, of North Augusta Public Safety, said "first and foremost you should put safety first."

In the scenario at the gas station, Pearson would be very careful as a civilian trying to restrain a person under the influence of alcohol. A person with a badge, gun and handcuffs is much better equipped to handle that situation, he said.

He suggests following a suspected drunken driver's vehicle while updating dispatch on the phone with a location.

Information passed on to law enforcement is usually more helpful than stepping in yourself, Pearson said.

Public safety information

To report a crime or suspicious activity, call these nonemergency numbers:

RICHMOND COUNTY SHERIFF'S OFFICE: (706) 823-1080

NORTH AUGUSTA PUBLIC SAFETY: (803) 279-2121

COLUMBIA COUNTY SHERIFF'S OFFICE: (706) 541-2800