More than a month after Florida teen Trayvon Martin was shot and killed in a confrontation with a neighborhood watchman, many Oklahomans have had questions about the role of citizen policing.
You might be surprised to know that Oklahoma law gives citizens almost as much policing power as actual law enforcement officers.
Under Oklahoma statutes, you don't need a badge to make an arrest. The law says if you witness someone committing a crime, or are certain that they have committed a crime, you have a right to make a citizen's arrest. In fact, the law says citizens can form a posse and even kick in windows or doors to make an arrest during a fresh pursuit. But citizens can't serve warrants issued by a court.
But before you grab your gun and handcuffs and head out on a citizen's patrol, there are a few things you should know so you don't end up getting hurt or sued.
"I very much could be a slippery slope," Sgt. Shannon Clark of the Tulsa County Sheriff's Office said.
But Clark said there are times when a citizen's arrest is appropriate.
"If they see someone, say a purse-snatching incident," he said. "If they see someone grab a girl's purse and take off running, they have the right to go and restrain that person and turn them over to law enforcement."
That's what happened last December when some college softball players caught a man stealing purses and breaking into cars at a south Tulsa bar. With help from others at the scene, the women were able to catch the man and hold him until police arrived.
But usually citizen's arrests don't go so smoothly.
"Probably it's more of a safety issue," Tulsa attorney Jim Beckert said. "But beyond that, they basically subject themselves to great civil liability if something goes wrong."
What could go wrong is somebody could get hurt or killed, or the arresting citizen could arrest the wrong person, which would violate that person's Fourth Amendment rights by restricting their freedom.
Either way, it could be bad news for the arresting citizen.
"Well, you get sued," Beckert said.
Or you could end up getting charged for a crime yourself.
That's especially true for those who assemble a posse.
But there's also a very large gray area in the law when it comes to making a citizen's arrest using a gun, Taser, or other weapon.
"There's specific guidelines under the conceal carry that you can only use that for self-protection, not to affect an arrest," Clark said.
"If you're acting as a private citizen and you're going to perfect an arrest, you know, you've basically got to do it with what God gave you."
Because if you use that weapon while trying to arrest somebody, and that person ends up getting hurt or killed, it likely won't end well for the arresting citizen.
"Any time you are the initiator and you have a clear path to avoid the confrontation, that is going to be strongly held against you in any type of judicial determination of whether you were justified," Beckert said.
Clark said the most common type of citizen's arrest comes when people have a physical altercation that a law enforcement officer does not witness.
"If we pull up and two guys just got done fighting, well we didn't see it," Clark said. "And it's a misdemeanor not committed in our presence. So, we have to tell them if you guys want to arrest each other, by all means."
Beckert says, for the most part, the law is antiquated these days. It was written at a time when people didn't have cell phones, and calls to police could often take extended periods of time. In those cases when a crime had just been committed, the state wanted citizen's to be able to make sure the criminal could not get away.
These days, even though you have the right to make a citizen's arrest, the cases in which it is safe and appropriate to use are far more limited. Both Clark and Beckert say the smartest thing you can do if you witness a crime is call 911. After all, one of the main reasons you pay taxes is to fund police officers and sheriff's deputies.
However, there are some professions that rely on the citizen's arrest laws. They are what allow store clerks to stop shoplifters, bouncers at bars to restrain drunk people, security guards to arrest people, and private investigators and bounty hunters to make arrests.
In those cases, Beckert says the arresting citizen has more protection against civil liability.
"As long as they stay within the policy of that company, they've got some level of protection as far as civil liability against them," he said.
The citizen's arrest laws require the arresting citizen to inform the person that they are arresting them and why. The law then requires them to hand the arrested person over to a magistrate or law enforcement officer in a timely manner. Click here
to read the exact wording of Oklahoma's citizen's arrest laws.