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Can Anyone Just Make a Citizen’s Arrest?

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It depends. 

First, a little history. The concept of citizen’s arrest is usually traced back to medieval Britain, where local sheriffs often relied on (and even encouraged) citizens to help maintain order and apprehend criminals. As the British explored and settled around the world, the citizen’s arrests came in handy in colonies that had little or no formal police forces and were far from the reach of the King’s justice system. 

Even after many of Britain’s colonies gained their independence and the wild frontiers became urban centers, DIY policing remained useful. Developing municipal police departments could only handle so many incidents without modern tools like patrol cars and hand-held radio technology. According to Violent Death in the City, a history of crime in 19th century Philadelphia, even with the establishment of the city’s first police detectives in the middle of the century (as late as 1898, there still were only 15 detectives in the police department, and none of them specialized in homicide or much else besides property crimes), private citizens continued to make arrests and even do detective work. Even Herman Webster Mudgett, a.k.a. H.H. Holmes, “perhaps the most celebrated mass murderer of the century,” was caught thanks largely to the work of Frank Geyer, a detective with the private security and detective agency Pinkerton Government Services.

By the end of the 1800s, American cities were becoming large and anonymous enough that everyday people were hesitant to intervene in other people's problems, and were growing dependent on police forces that were more institutionalized and expansive in their powers. Still, the concept of citizen’s arrest stuck around. 

Law of the Land

Today, in the United States, private citizens are still able to make arrests under certain conditions. Those conditions differ from state to state, but in many cases, you can make an arrest for 1) a misdemeanor offense committed or attempted in your presence (some jurisdictions specify that the offense has to constitute a “breach of the peace,” the definition for which varies) or 2) a felony offense that has been committed, whether in your presence or not. With a felony committed outside your presence, some jurisdictions specify that the crime must have actually happened, that you knew it happened, and that you have a reasonable suspicion about the identity of the perpetrator before taking action. If you don’t meet those criteria—if you thought a felony was committed and thought you knew who the perpetrator was, but no crime actually occurred, for example—but proceed with the arrest anyway, you open yourself up to a lawsuit in some places. 

Again, these rules differ from state to state and even between municipalities in the same state. Your mileage may vary, so check the local laws before you go and get your vigilante on.

Some other things to keep in mind:

- Some jurisdictions require certain procedural steps during a citizen’s arrest—for example, notifying the suspect that they are under arrest and identifying the crime for which they’re being arrested. In other places, you don’t have to notify a person that you’re arresting them if a “reasonable person in the suspect’s position” would know they are under arrest by your actions and the context. 

- When it comes to searching someone that you’ve arrested, many states allow you to seize any weapons in their possession and any evidence in plain view, but not conduct a search of their person. Some states grant exceptions for “merchant searches,” where a merchant who arrests a suspect for theft can make a limited search for stolen property in the person’s shopping bags, purse or other packages, but not their clothing. 

- Citizen’s arrests usually aren’t subject to the same requirements as an arrest made by a police officer. So, for example, you don’t need to read your arrestee their Miranda rights. 

- Using force during an arrest is tricky. Many states allow you to use the “amount of force that is reasonable and necessary” to make an arrest. The definition of “reasonable and necessary” will always depend on the circumstances of the arrest. Some states allow for the use of deadly force if the person making the arrest is faced with the threat of death or serious injury by immediate use of force (that is, someone is about to stab you, not just saying they’ll stab you). In some states, deadly force is also allowed in order to stop a fleeing suspect if reasonable attempts have already been made to restrain them. Crossing the line on the use of force obviously opens you up to serious legal and civil liability. 

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Big Questions
What’s the Difference Between Prison and Jail?
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Many people use the terms jail and prison interchangeably, and while both terms refer to areas where people are held, there's a substantial difference between the two methods of incarceration. Where a person who is accused of a crime is held, and for how long, is a factor in determining the difference between the two—and whether a person is held in a jail or a prison is largely determined by the severity of the crime they have committed.

A jail (or, for our British friends, a gaol) refers to a small, temporary holding facility—run by local governments and supervised by county sheriff departments—that is designed to detain recently arrested people who have committed a minor offense or misdemeanor. A person can also be held in jail for an extended period of time if the sentence for their offense is less than a year. There are currently 3163 local jail facilities in the United States.

A jail is different from the similarly temporary “lockup”—sort of like “pre-jail”—which is located in local police departments and holds offenders unable to post bail, people arrested for public drunkenness who are kept until they are sober, or, most importantly, offenders waiting to be processed into the jail system.

A prison, on the other hand, is usually a large state- or federal-run facility meant to house people convicted of a serious crime or felony, and whose sentences for those crimes surpass 365 days. A prison could also be called a “penitentiary,” among other names.

To be put in a state prison, a person must be convicted of breaking a state law. To be put in a federal prison, a person must be convicted of breaking federal law. Basic amenities in a prison are more extensive than in a jail because, obviously, an inmate is likely to spend more than a year of his or her life confined inside a prison. As of 2012, there were 4575 operating prisons in the U.S.—the most in the world. The country with the second highest number of operating prisons is Russia, which has just 1029 facilities.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
What Do Morticians Do With the Blood They Take Out of Dead Bodies?
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Zoe-Anne Barcellos:

The blood goes down the sink drain, into the sewer system.

I am not a mortician, but I work for a medical examiner/coroner. During an autopsy, most blood is drained from the decedent. This is not on purpose, but a result of gravity. Later a mortician may or may not embalm, depending on the wishes of the family.

Autopsies are done on a table that has a drain at one end; this drain is placed over a sink—a regular sink, with a garbage disposal in it. The blood and bodily fluids just drain down the table, into the sink, and down the drain. This goes into the sewer, like every other sink and toilet, and (usually) goes to a water treatment plant.

You may be thinking that this is biohazardous waste and needs to be treated differently. [If] we can’t put oil, or chemicals (like formalin) down the drains due to regulations, why is blood not treated similarly? I would assume because it is effectively handled by the water treatment plants. If it wasn’t, I am sure the regulations would be changed.

Now any items that are soiled with blood—those cannot be thrown away in the regular trash. Most clothing worn by the decedent is either retained for evidence or released with the decedent to the funeral home—even if they were bloody.

But any gauze, medical tubing, papers, etc. that have blood or bodily fluids on them must be thrown away into a biohazardous trash. These are lined with bright red trash liners, and these are placed in a specially marked box and taped closed. These boxes are stacked up in the garage until they are picked up by a specialty garbage company. I am not sure, but I am pretty sure they are incinerated.

Additionally anything sharp or pointy—like needles, scalpels, etc.—must go into a rigid “sharps” container. When they are 2/3 full we just toss these into one of the biotrash containers.

The biotrash is treated differently, as, if it went to a landfill, then the blood (and therefore the bloodborne pathogens like Hepatitis and HIV) could be exposed to people or animals. Rain could wash it into untreated water systems.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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