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The 2020 murder of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia by men who later claimed they were detaining a potential criminal suspect has brought scrutiny to citizen's arrest laws across the country.

The killing involved three white men who chased down and shot Arbery, a 25-year-old unarmed Black man who was jogging on the street. The men were convicted in November of murder and sentenced to life in prison.

Georgia has repealed its Civil War-era citizen's arrest statute, which Gov. Brian Kemp called "ripe for abuse." As other states now reconsider similar laws, a Star Tribune reader wanted to know more about the citizen's arrest statute in Minnesota. They submitted the question to Curious Minnesota, the paper's reader-powered reporting project.

Unlike some states, such as Kentucky and Arkansas, Minnesota's law allows a private citizen to make an arrest for misdemeanor-level offenses. It is most commonly used by private security officers for lower-level crimes, according to local police officials.

The law allows a private person to make an arrest if a criminal offense — not a civil one — has been committed in their presence. A citizen may also arrest someone for a felony-level offense it they have "reasonable cause for believing the person committed it."

Minnesota's law dates back at least 117 years and hasn't changed substantially in that time. A separate law specifically enables a merchant, or their employee, to detain a suspected shoplifter under some circumstances. Either way, the person making the arrest must turn the suspect over to police immediately and fill out a citizen's arrest form.

But there's a thin line between a citizen's arrest and false imprisonment. Trying to detain a suspect, especially if you're wrong about their alleged crime, may invite lawsuits on a number of claims, including assault, unlawful imprisonment and deprivation of civil rights under the "color of the law," said Joseph Daly, emeritus professor at Mitchell Hamline School of Law.

It can also be extremely dangerous if the person doesn't go quietly. So just because it may be legal doesn't mean you should attempt it, said Daly, who recommends calling 911 instead.

"If you do it, it should be for some pretty good reason," he said.

Most citizen's arrests are conducted by private security officers who witness misdemeanor crimes like shoplifting and trespassing, said Garrett Parten, a spokesman for the Minneapolis Police Department. If the alleged crime is caught on surveillance footage, a citizen's arrest isn't necessary.

The same is true for St. Paul. Police spokesman Steve Linders estimated the department receives hundreds of citizen's arrests each year, almost entirely for minor theft and trespassing.

High-profile arrests

Citizen's arrests have made headlines over the years in a variety of circumstances.

In 1967, for example, the principal of Lincoln Junior High School in north Minneapolis made a controversial citizen's arrest of Black community organizer Matthew Eubanks. After a teacher slapped a Black student, Eubanks and others formed a committee to make demands of the school.

Principal George Christenson didn't want to allow activist Spike Moss into a meeting because he considered Moss disruptive, according to a Minneapolis Star article from the time. Eubanks let Moss in anyway, and Christenson arrested Eubanks for "forcefully trying to enter the building."

In 1978, Rep. Kenneth McDonald, an Independent Republican from Watertown, placed the president of the University Film Society under arrest on suspicion of obscenity for screening the graphic 1975 Italian horror film "Salò, or 120 Days in Sodom." (The Criterion Collection calls the movie "a masterpiece," but notes that it has also been described as "depraved" and "nauseating.")

Even Goldy Gopher once filled out a citizen's arrest form. The incident occurred in 2011 after a University of St. Thomas math professor, tired of the cheeky mascot teasing him in the stands, punched Goldy in the face during a gymnastics meet and knocked the buck-toothed rodent into the bleachers.

Minnesota's State Supreme Court ruled in 2000 that people making citizen's arrests are not allowed to conduct investigations. That case involved two volunteer "special deputies" for the Hennepin County Sheriff's Water Patrol, who detained a boater on suspicion of being intoxicated.

Driving a boat marked "Sheriff" and in full uniform, the volunteers pulled up to a boat they believed was violating the "quiet waters ordinance" on Lake Minnetonka. The driver appeared to slur his words, so they ordered him onto their boat and performed three field sobriety tests. After determining he was under the influence, they took him to shore and turned him over to law enforcement.

The court tossed the evidence from the field sobriety tests. The volunteers were not licensed peace officers, so detaining the boater amounted to a citizen's arrest. And the court held that citizens are not authorized to conduct investigations (in this case, a field sobriety test) after witnessing a public offense.

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