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Can Civilians Arrest Cops?

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Among those calling for the arrest of Lt. John Pike after he pepper-sprayed docile UC Davis students, are some who think a so-called citizen's arrest is in order. So far as I can tell, it is indeed possible for a civilian to legitimately put the cuffs on a peace officer, but an amateur enforcer could be vulnerable to a false arrest lawsuit. Therefore, anyone who might apprehend him should not only be able to say exactly which crime Pike committed, but be certain the allegation is correct.

Although it's generally illegal in California to use pepper spray apart from self-defense, police officers are exempt. So the only recourse for the sprayed might be to sue the sprayer for violating the Constitution and the UC Police procedures manual, which states:

Chemical agents... should be used only in situations where such force reasonably appears justified and necessary... Arrestees and suspects... shall not be subject to physical force except as required to subdue violence or ensure detention.

Over at The Atlantic, Alexis Madrigal rejects the notion "that Pike is an independent bad actor. Too many incidents around the country attest to the widespread deployment of these tactics. If we vilify Pike, we let the institutions off way too easy."

Madrigal has a point, and those who are itching to bust a wayward cop would find -- if they were to look -- many such offenders on California roadways acting as if they are above the law. It would be especially easy to nab unarmed parking enforcement officers, most of whom violate various traffic/parking laws flagrantly and chronically, even though police are always supposed to obey the entire Vehicle Code (unless responding to an emergency).

Which isn't to say that cops with guns are more likely to comply with such inconvenient laws. To the contrary, everyone is quite familiar with the sight of an empty patrol car illegally parked at a red curb while its driver and partner enjoy lunch.

Civilians, at least in California, have surprisingly broad authority to go after Pike as well as double-parked meter maids and hungry officers who can't be bothered to find a legal space. In fact, a cop who has committed a public offense (an act punishable by fine or imprisonment) could be lawfully arrested by just about anyone for just about anything -- even a minor traffic violation.

When it comes to the actual hands-on part of law enforcement, civilians have powerful options. I doubt the summoned are required to cooperate, but a person making a citizen's arrest is authorized to "orally summon as many persons as he deems necessary to aid him..."

If it's in pursuit of a suspected felon, a "private person" (plus whatever posse might have been recruited) can lawfully "break open the door or window of the house in which the person to be arrested is..." and forcibly take the arrestee before a judge.

We have not yet seen civilians attempt to take such drastic action against a police officer. But on the UC Davis campus and elsewhere, relations between cops and the community are so strained that all sorts of retaliations for actual or perceived police brutality seem possible.

The situation in Los Angeles is starkly different. Protesters who are occupying two lawns on opposite sides of City Hall have impressively maintained almost total harmony with the LAPD. Police chief Charlie Beck even tolerates pot smoking in his presence. He told a LA Weekly reporter, "Marijuana use doesn't disturb me... We don't want to arrest anyone... The true measure of strength is when you restrain it."

Maybe the top cops and mayors of other American cities should visit Los Angeles, enjoy a few bong hits with Chief Beck and discuss how to treat peaceful demonstrators humanely.

In the meanwhile, Lt. Pike would be well-advised to make sure he comes to a complete stop before he turns right on red in Davis.

This story was also published at CitizenJeff.com.

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