Every citizen in the State of California has the power of citizen's arrest under Penal Code Section 837. The power of citizen's arrest is very similar to that of a police officer in that the private citizen may take someone into custody for a misdemeanor committed in the presence of the private citizen or for a felony in which probable cause exists to make an arrest. Until 2002, it was actually a crime for a police officer to refuse to take someone into custody under a citizen's arrest. It was a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $10,000 and up to one year in jail under Penal Code Section 142. However, the California state legislature removed this accountability by adding subsection (c) to Penal Code 142. Subsection (c) removes the penalty a police officer would receive if they refuse to act on citizen's arrests or the filing of crime reports.
According to an article recently published by Special Investigations Agency, the San Diego Police Department may be using this change in the law to artificially lower the number of crime reports. If this allegation is true, then it would tend to show that crime statistics can easily be manipulated by any police department for budgetary or other reasons. If someone wants to make a citizens arrest for property crimes such as shoplifting or vandalism, the police can refuse to take action or make an arrest without any fear of penalties. Even more serious misdemeanors such as violation of a domestic violence restraining order might not get the same attention from the police as under the prior law.
Without accountability, a police officer is no longer obligated under the law to act on a citizens arrest. Be removing a tool of empowerment from the people, the legislature may be unintentionally undermining public confidence in the police. According to a recent analysis of crime reporting statistics, only 8% of calls made to the San Diego Police Department result in a crime report. The other 92% of the calls do not make it into the crime statistics. By comparison, 12% of the calls to the Chula Vista Police Department generate crime reports and 21% of the calls to the Los Angeles Police Department generate crime reports.
There is at least anecdotal evidence to suggest that the San Diego Police Department might be making using this change in the law to do less work. The security director of a local shopping mall recently reported to me that his staff no longer even calls SDPD because of a pattern of releasing suspects and refusing to take a crime report or issue a citation.
It is time for citizens to call upon their legislators to restore accountability to local law enforcement.
About the Author: Carl H. Starrett II has been a licensed attorney since 1993 and is a member in good standing with the California State Bar and the San Diego County Bar Association. Mr. Starrett practices in the areas of bankruptcy, business litigation, construction, corporate planning and debt collection.