Suppose that you leave your phone on a bench and you leave for two minutes to stretch or do something. Somebody takes it. You catch them in the act and ask them to stop, but they start running.

Are you legally allowed to stop them using physical force (let's say that the force used is not enough to seriously injure them)? What would happen in the case if you do seriously injure them?

And more than that, what's exactly the difference between self-defense and vigilante justice? Is it vigilante justice to stop someone from stealing your stuff?

  • 1
    You should look up for your jurisdiction whether a citizen's arrest is possible (it may be called something different, or not have a name at all), and what is considered reasonable force.
    – user4657
    Oct 12, 2016 at 2:43

4 Answers 4


This is related to Can a store sell merchandise I've left in the store? The phone in question has been mislaid and anyone who finds it has a duty to deliver it to the owner of the bench for safekeeping pending the true owner's return: if the owner does not return within a reasonable time the phone becomes the property of the bench owner (e.g. the city that owns the park).

However, the specific question here is: Where the owner has returned within a reasonable time but the possessor of the phone is now clearly attempting to steal it. Most jurisdictions recognise that a person is entitled to use reasonable force to defend their life or property. For example, the law in Australia1, is generally case law for which the authority is the High Court's decision in Zecevic v DPP (1987) 162 CLR 645:

The question to be asked in the end is quite simple. It is whether the accused believed upon reasonable grounds that it was necessary in self-defence to do what he did. If he had that belief and there were reasonable grounds for it, or if the jury is left in reasonable doubt about the matter, then he is entitled to an acquittal. Stated in this form, the question is one of general application and is not limited to cases of homicide.

So, you are entitled to do "what you believe upon reasonable grounds that it was necessary to do" to defend your property. This would include using physical force to stop their flight and return your property to your possession: it would not include force that posed real and foreseeable risk of inflicting death or grievous bodily harm upon them.

In addition, because you have reasonable grounds to believe that they have committed a crime, you are allowed to arrest them and deliver them to lawful custody (i.e. a police officer). Naturally, if you do not have reasonable grounds them you have just kidnapped them.

The consequences if you do injure them is that you can be charged with a crime (battery, grievous bodily harm, manslaughter, murder etc.) and/or be sued for damages (medical bills, lost wages etc.) in both cases you could use self-defence as a defence.

The difference between self-defence and vigilante justice is one is legal and the other isn't


The difference between vigilante justice and self defense is that the former is characterized by either the absence of law, the misusing of the law, or a dissatisfaction with the law. Examples may include Wild West-style frontier justice as well as lynching. Self defense, however, is specifically related to and accounted for in the law and, as such, must be used in specific ways under certain circumstances. Vigilante justice is often taking the law into your own hands while you are not an authority whereas self defense is you exercising a right you possess.


In Texas, the use of force to protect your phone, or to prevent the thief from escaping with your phone, could be legally justified depending on the exact circumstances. Chapter 9 of the Texas Penal code explains when the use of force and the use of deadly force are legally justified. See in particular Section 9.41 and 9.42. In Texas, there is no minimum value of the property that can be protected or recovered with force.


In your particular situation there is a problem: If I, an honest, upstanding citizen, find a phone on a park bench, and you come and claim it is yours, I cannot know if you are the rightful owner or a thief. So I would then suggest to you that I call the police and we wait for them. If you try to take the phone away from me it is very reasonable for me to assume you are indeed a thief and prevent you from taking it.

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