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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 Is the Meaning Behind "420"?
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Whether or not you’re a marijuana enthusiast, you’re probably aware that today is an unofficial holiday for those who are. April 20—4/20—is a day when pot smokers around the world come together to, well, smoke pot. Others use the day to push for legalization, holding marches and rallies.

But why the code 420? There are a lot of theories as to why that particular number was chosen, but most of them are wrong. You may have heard that 420 is police code for possession, or maybe it’s the penal code for marijuana use. Both are false. There is a California Senate Bill 420 that refers to the use of medical marijuana, but the bill was named for the code, not the other way around.

As far as anyone can tell, the phrase started with a bunch of high school students. Back in 1971, a group of kids at San Rafael High School in San Rafael, California, got in the habit of meeting at 4:20 to smoke after school. When they’d see each other in the hallways during the day, their shorthand was “420 Louis,” meaning, “Let’s meet at the Louis Pasteur statue at 4:20 to smoke.”

Somehow, the phrase caught on—and when the Grateful Dead eventually picked it up, "420" spread through the greater community like wildfire. What began as a silly code passed between classes is now a worldwide event for smokers and legalization activists everywhere—not a bad accomplishment for a bunch of high school stoners.

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
Why Is a Pineapple Called a Pineapple?
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by James Hunt

Ask an English-speaking person whether they've heard of a pineapple, and you'll probably receive little more than a puzzled look. Surely, every schoolchild has heard of this distinctive tropical fruit—if not in its capacity as produce, then as a dessert ring, or smoothie ingredient, or essential component of a Hawaiian pizza.

But ask an English-speaking person if they've ever heard of the ananas fruit and you'll probably get similarly puzzled looks, but for the opposite reason. The average English speaker has no clue what an ananas is—even though it's the name given to the pineapple in almost every other major global language.

In Arabic, German, French, Dutch, Greek, Hebrew, Hindi, Swedish, Turkish—even in Latin and Esperanto—the pineapple is known as an ananas, give or take local variations in the alphabet and accents. In the languages where it isn't, it's often because the word has been imported from English, such as in the case of the Japanese パイナップル (painappuru) and the Welsh pinafel.

So how is it that English managed to pick the wrong side in this fight so spectacularly? Would not a pineapple, by any other name, taste as weird and tingly?

To figure out where things went wrong for English as a language, we have to go back and look at how Europeans first encountered the fruit in question, which is native to South America. It was first catalogued by Columbus's expedition to Guadeloupe in 1493, and they called it piña de Indes, meaning "pine of the Indians"—not because the plant resembled a pine tree (it doesn't) but because they thought the fruit looked like a pine cone (umm, ... it still doesn't. But you can sort of see it.)

Columbus was on a Spanish mission and, dutifully, the Spanish still use the shortened form piñas to describe the fruit. But almost every other European language (including Portuguese, Columbus's native tongue) decided to stick with the name given to the fruit by the indigenous Tupí people of South America: ananas, which means "excellent fruit."

According to etymological sources, the English word pineapple was first applied to the fruit in 1664, but that didn't end the great pineapple versus ananas debate. Even as late as the 19th century, there are examples of both forms in concurrent use within the English language; for example, in the title of Thomas Baldwin's Short Practical Directions For The Culture Of The Ananas; Or Pine Apple Plant, which was published in 1813.

So given that we knew what both words meant, why didn't English speakers just let go of this illogical and unhelpful linguistic distinction? The ultimate reason may be: We just think our own language is better than everyone else's.

You see, pineapple was already an English word before it was applied to the fruit. First used in 1398, it was originally used to describe what we now call pine cones. Hilariously, the term pine cones wasn't recorded until 1694, suggesting that the application of pineapple to the ananas fruit probably meant that people had to find an alternative to avoid confusion. And while ananas hung around on the periphery of the language for a time, when given a choice between using a local word and a foreign, imported one, the English went with the former so often that the latter essentially died out.

Of course, it's not too late to change our minds. If you want to ask for ananas the next time you order a pizza, give it a try (though we can't say what you'd up with as a result).

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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