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Law of Citizen Arrests in Washington State

Citizen arrests powers are not something you thing about every day. Typically, if you have an issue with something or someone, you call the police. But what if the police are not available or not responding? We faced just that sort of scenario this weekend, as civil unrest broke out in major cities across the U.S. including Spokane and Seattle. One particular incident caught my eye as worthy of discussion. An armed security guard for Q13 TV in Seattle observed people break into police vehicles and steal AR-15 assault rifles and fire them. The story is recounted here. We typically think about a citizen arrest as a property owner defending his or her property, but in this instance, the security guard acted in a matter in which he was not directly involved. His actions were justified, and here is why. Under Washington law, citizens have a right to make a citizen arrest whenever they there is a "breach of peace" or a felony committed within their presence. You won't find this law in any statute or RCW. Rather you find this in written legal precedents or "common law." See for example the cases of State v. Gonzales, 24 Wn. App. 437, 439, 604 P.2d 168 (1979); Guijosa v. Wal-Mart Stores, 101 Wn. App. 777, 791, 6 P.3d 583 (2000). So in this instance, the private security guard (with no more authority than any other citizen observed a young man steal an firearm (which is a felony) and discharge it recklessly which is likely just a misdemeanor but it is certainly a breach of peace. The guard then ended the felonious behavior by retrieving the firearm (at gun point). As you would expect, he immediately called the police to arrange the return of the weapon. The action was probably also justified by notions of self-defense or the defense of others.