Can Deadly Force Be Used in a Citizen Arrest?

Troy Mo. Bank Window

Last week, just before Halloween, a man wearing a “Chucky” mask walked into the People’s Bank & Trust in Troy, Missouri.  He was there to rob the bank.   

Possibly the bank robber couldn’t see through the holes in his Chucky mask: a sign on the bank’s front door shows a handgun with a circle around it–in other words, guns are allowed  in the bank.  (That should have been his first clue that robbing this particular bank might not work out as planned…)

A few minutes later, the Chucky robber left the bank with a bag full of cash–$4,779 to be exact.  (He later told police he was just there to trick or treat). 

Bank president David Thompson followed him out of the bank and watched “Chucky” get in a Ford pickup. Thompson then pulled his Colt .380 and pointed it at the robber. “Sir, get out of the truck,” Thompson demanded. “You’re not going anywhere.”

“Chucky” then put his hand in his jacket pocket, as if he had a weapon. Thompson warned him: “You don’t want to go there, this will end badly.”

Fortunately the “Chucky” robber did what he was told and did not escalate the situation. (It turned out that he did not have a gun in his pocket.)  Thompson and another bank employee, who also carries a concealed weapon, pulled the man from his Ford pickup and held him at gunpoint until Troy Police arrived.

So what about that? 

Can deadly force be used to stop a bank robber who has already walked outside the bank–and was not an imminent threat to anyone inside the bank? What use-of-force options were available to Mr. Thompson?

Missouri Law

Missouri is one of only a few states with statutes governing use-of-force by an Armed Citizen while making a citizen’s arrest. Under Missouri Revised Statutes:

“A private person in effecting an arrest or in preventing escape from custody is justified in using deadly force only…(3) When he reasonably believes such use of deadly force is immediately necessary to effect the arrest of a person who at that time and in his presence:

–Committed or attempted to commit a class A felony or murder; or

–Is attempting to escape by use of a deadly weapon.”

So in Mr. Thompson’s case, the “Chucky” Robber had just robbed the bank.  Mr. Thompson had no idea how much money was in the bank bag as the robber walked out.  Was this a Class A Felony for which deadly force was authorized in Missouri?

Analysis

In Missouri, Class A felonies include “first degree robbery.”  In turn, first degree robbery includes “forcible stealing” of property where he…  “(4) Displays or threatens the use of what appears to be a deadly weapon or dangerous instrument.”

 Was the “Chucky” Robber “threatening” the use of what appears to be a deadly weapon when he put his hand in his pocket, as though to reach for a gun?  We will never know, of course, but this would have been a very difficult and close call had Mr. Thompson actually shot the robber.

“Fleeing Felon” Rule for Citizens?

But what about the Fleeing Felon Rule? Does it apply to citizens, and if so, how?

In Tennessee v. Gardner  the United States Supreme Court said the Fourth Amendment prohibits deadly force by Law Enforcement unless (1) necessary to prevent the escape and (2) suspect poses a significant threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or others.  This has generally become known as the “fleeing felon” exception to the use of deadly force.

So, clearly, Law Enforcement Officers can use deadly force against a fleeing felon in these limited circumstances that involve the likelihood of death or serious injury if the felon is allowed to escape.  However, the Fourth Amendment does not apply to armed citizens.  Constitutional protections guard against improper “governmental” interference with a person’s rights or freedoms—not “private party” interference.

Only a few cases have addressed the “fleeing felon” rule involving citizen arrests.  A very cursory search turned up cases in Michigan, Nevada, South Carolina and New Mexico.

Michigan

Interestingly, Michigan seems to have the greatest number of deadly-force “citizen arrest” cases in the country, by a large margin.  Why this would be so, is hard to explain.  The cases involve periods of time both when Michigan was economically booming and when economically depressed. 

In 1990, the case of People v. Couch came before the Michigan State Supreme Court involving a citizen’s use of deadly force  to stop a fleeing felon.  The prosecutor argued that the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Tennessee v. Gardner (1985) should also be followed in Michigan state courts; i.e., that deadly force to stop a fleeing felon should only be allowed if escape would pose a significant threat of death or serious injury to other people.  The Michigan Supreme Court refused to follow Tennessee v. Gardner, explaining:

1) Tennessee v. Garner was a civil case which made no mention of the officer’s criminal responsibility for his “unreasonable” actions;

2) the United States Supreme Court is without authority  to require a state to make shooting a non-dangerous fleeing felon a crime; and

3) the U.S. Supreme Court has never expressed an intent to make the above a crime.

So in Michigan, at least, it appears that a citizen arrest might actually allow deadly force against a fleeing felon to a higher degree than under United States Constitutional law. 

South Carolina

In State v. Cooney, the Supreme Court of South Carolina also refused to follow the Tennessee v. Gardner federal case, explaining:

‘[W]e find the holding in Garner does not apply to seizures by private persons and does not change the State’s criminal law with respect to citizens using force in apprehending a fleeing felon.”

Nevada

Nevada, on the other hand, appears to allow a citizen making a citizen arrest to use deadly force to stop a fleeing felon only when the felon presents an imminent danger of death or grave bodily injury to those nearby—similar to the Tennessee v. Gardner case.

New Mexico

New Mexico appears to allow a citizen to use deadly force in making a citizen’s arrest if he or she faces a deadly threat and use of deadly force is “objectively reasonable”—similar to the Graham v. Connor case.

Where do the other 45 states stand on citizen use of deadly force to stop a fleeing felon It is extremely difficult to say.  My review of this issue, of course, has been very cursory.  Maybe there are other cases and statutes out there that I missed in doing this quick review. 

But it is safe to say that in most states the notion of a citizen using deadly force to stop a fleeing felon is probably not a good idea.

The People’s Bank & Trust Robbery—Troy Missouri

Luckily for all involved, the People’s Bank & Trust robbery was successfully resolved by the bank manager, Mr. Thompson, without the use of deadly force.  What was Mr. Thompson’s take on the situation after the attempted robbery?

“I didn’t have time to get scared,” said Thompson, a life member of the National Rifle Association who supports concealed-carry laws. “I was excited. Your adrenaline pumps. He robbed a bank, he menaced my employees, and I don’t allow that.”

Troy Police Chief Jerry Taylor said he generally advises that people don’t take matters into their own hands, but didn’t second-guess Thompson’s actions.

In general, I would suggest they lock that door, get a good description of the robber and call police immediately,” Taylor said. 

Sounds like pretty good advice from Chief Taylor…

Add your comment