Anyone can arrest anyone for committing a felony, according to Columbus Assistant City Attorney Steve Dunbar.
That applies to private citizens as well as law enforcement personnel, he said.
“But if it’s a misdemeanor, you just kidnapped someone and you’re going to jail,” Dunbar said last week while offering some legal advice to a group of Block Watch captains.
“Citizen’s arrest is a really tricky thing to tread into,” added Dunbar, who is also the legal advisor to the Columbus Division of Police.
Addressing a monthly meeting of Block Watch representatives from primarily the Northland area, Dunbar offered some pointers and insights to people involved in anti-crime efforts in general or just concerned about crime.
At the outset of his remarks, Dunbar offered to address any of three topics:
• Search and seizure, a topic he teaches to all police recruit classes, relating to when someone can be questioned, the rules relating to stopping and searching a vehicle and what constitutes apprehending someone.
• “Courts 101,” regarding what happens once someone is arrested, why suspects get out of jail and the plea bargain process.
• Bars, clubs, abandoned property and other locales within neighborhoods that may come under the city attorney’s rules regarding nuisance abatement.
The 30 or so Block Watch members present chose to start off with search and seizure, and Dunbar, who works for City Attorney Richard C. Pfeiffer Jr., never got the chance to address the other topics.
Law enforcement personnel employ different levels of detention in going about their duties, he said, beginning with what’s called a “consensual encounter.” This merely involves approaching someone on the street and engaging them in conversation; a police officer has the same right to do this as any citizen, Dunbar said.
“Sometimes it leads to the next step, sometimes it leads to nothing,” he said. “What it really depends on is what the officer sees, what the officer knows.”
The rules are different for stopping a motor vehicle, Dunbar added. That requires having a specific reason for doing so.
Approaching someone sitting in a parked car is the same as going up to someone on the street, he said.
The next level up from the consensual encounter is “investigative detention.” The big difference, Dunbar said, is that a potential suspect is not free to go.
This requires what’s called a “reasonable, articulable suspicion” that the individual has done something wrong. As is the case with stopping a car or truck, the officer has to be able to state a specific reason.
“It’s more than just a hunch,” Dunbar said. “Officers are allowed to be wrong.”
An investigative detention can be made on the basis of reports from others, although an anonymous call may not be acted upon unless the officer witnesses something that corroborates what the tipster indicated, Dunbar said. Those who call for police assistance and provide their names enable officers to act on that information alone.
“Officers are allowed to give that much, much more weight and can take action on it,” he said. “Maybe that person’s wrong. Maybe that person made a mistake. Maybe that person is lying.
“The biggest thing is you’ve got to put yourself out there so the officer can follow up with you.”
The next level up involves an actual arrest; what’s called “probable cause” is needed for that to occur, according to Dunbar.
According to the website lawyers.com, probable cause involves a “reasonable ground in fact and circumstance for a belief in the existence of certain circumstances, as that an offense has been or is being committed, that a person is guilty of an offense, that a particular search will uncover contraband, that an item to be seized is in a particular place, or that a specific fact or cause of action exists.”
Arresting an individual may involve hauling that person to jail right away, issuing a citation or serving papers at a later date, Dunbar said.
“Either way, you’re going to court,” he added.
Probable cause also allows law enforcement officials to obtain a search warrant or, in the case of what is called “exigent circumstances,” such as arresting someone on the street, to conduct the search at that time.
“Searching someone is a higher level than just stopping someone and asking questions,” Dunbar said.
Officers are allowed to search a car without a warrant if they have probable cause, he said. That’s not the case with a person’s home.
“A car can drive away,” Dunbar said. “A house can’t.”