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I saw this video where a civilian manages to pull over a police officer for speeding. I doubt pulling someone over as a civilian is legal, strictly speaking, especially since the guy had to speed himself to keep up with the speeding officer. I know there are some situations where officers speed within their right, even without emergency lights, under certain circumstances.

But I was interested, for technicality sake, in learning what legal rights civilians have if they wish to take action against an officer they believe to be needlessly violating traffic laws for personal benefit. Lets say someone witnesses an officer turn on their lights and speed to pass traffic, then sees them pull into a doughnut shop a few blocks later and want to report that kind of misuse of power.

I know one can "make a complaint" but I'm wondering if there's generally any legal obligation for these complaints to be taken seriously, and if there's any feasible way a driver could validate the encounter. If a civilian takes a video of the officer speeding he'd probably be admitting to distracted driving, a crime in itself. If he looks at an ID number on the car and claims that was the car, it seems like it would be the civilian's word against the officer's. Wouldn't that just go the officer's way?

Legally speaking, do civilians have any right to apprehend an officer for a traffic violation? I've heard of civilian arrest but I know little about it. I'm curious to know if what this civilian in the video did (asked the officer to slow down) is even legal if he managed to stop the officer without speeding to do so.

Furthermore, even with evidence, is there any way a citizen could ensure that legal action be taken against the officer for a proven traffic violation? Beyond reporting it to the department and hoping for the best?

  • Not an answer, but a passenger operating a camera, or a fixed (e.g., dash mounted) camera would not result in any distracted driving violation. Indeed, unless the video makes it clear the driver was taking the footage, it would seem hard to prove a case based only on the video footage ("who took the footage?" "I plead the fifth" etc.) I'd imagine filing a formal complaint with the department and then following up with posting directly to YouTube would be about as effective as anything. – Patrick87 Nov 23 '16 at 13:39
  • One consideration to make is whether traffic violations in your state/jurisdiction are criminal or civil in nature. – Kevin Nov 23 '16 at 15:46
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    You need to specify a jurisdiction. This will vary hugely. There is always the option of private prosecution (in E&W). – Martin Bonner Nov 23 '16 at 16:41
  • @MartinBonner Quite so. Jurisdiction is all important. In the UK it's possible for a private individual to institute a private criminal prosecution against another citizen, police officers included. However, I am pretty sure that such a move would come to the attention of the CPS who may then refer the matter on to the Attorney-General (if they still have one in the UK) for his consideration. The A-G may then rely on one of his functions (a duty?) to intercede and enter a writ of Nolle Prosequi to have the private prosecution halted. It's a rare process but foreseeable in the OP's scenario. – Peter Point Nov 25 '16 at 9:49
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    @PeterPoint: We do still have an Attorney General. I think the process in E&W is that rather than a write of Nolle Prosequi, he may decide to take over the prosecution of a case. If he does so, and then decides to offer no evidence, the case will be dismissed. (The distinction is that in the "no evidence" situation, the defendant has been found "not guilty", and so can plead "autrefois acquit"; Nolle Prosequi halts the prosecution, but there is no finding of guilt or innocence.) – Martin Bonner Nov 25 '16 at 11:33
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I know one can "make a complaint" but I'm wondering if there's generally any legal obligation for these complaints to be taken seriously, and if there's any feasible way a driver could validate the encounter. . . . Furthermore, even with evidence, is there any way a citizen could ensure that legal action be taken against the officer for a proven traffic violation? Beyond reporting it to the department and hoping for the best?

A prosecutor is under no legal obligation to press charges (and police have no affirmative duty to enforce the laws on the books) ever, even if there is blatant and clear evidence of murder, let alone a traffic violation.

Usually, there is absolutely no way to compel charges to be brought against the offender (with a handful of states providing an exception where one can seek the appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate and prosecute if the circumstances warrant that would never be invoked for a mere traffic offense). Very few states allow anyone other than a prosecutor (or sometimes in minor cases, a law enforcement officer) to bring criminal or quasi-criminal charges.

Of course, if compelling evidence of a violation is found and shared with the media, there may be powerful political pressure to bring a prosecution, but how that is developed would entirely depend upon the circumstances.

Still, the relationship between prosecutors and law enforcement is so symbiotic, that prosecutors are loathe to press charges against law enforcement officers in all but the clearest of cases, especially for offenses occuring while a law enforcement officer is on duty in his home jurisdiction.

Legally speaking, do civilians have any right to apprehend an officer for a traffic violation?

While this would depend upon state law, most states treat traffic violations as a class of offense different from other misdemeanors and infractions and never authorize a citizens arrest for a traffic violation. Normally, only law enforcement officers can stop and cite people for traffic violations that aren't actually misdemeanor crimes.

For example, in Colorado, true traffic infractions are defined as civil matters for which someone may be stopped and subjected to a citation but not arrested (even by a law enforcement officer). See Colorado Revised Statutes § 42-4-1701(1). In Colorado, only more serious traffic offenses (e.g. hit and run) are crimes subject to arrest. In the case of a traffic offense which is a crime (probably not speeding), the general rules applicable to citizens arrests would usually apply.

  • Incidentally, this analysis is not true in the case of civil law countries whose legal systems are not derived from English common law. In those countries, in general, a law enforcement officer has an affirmative duty to enforce the law (albeit difficult to actually compel) and prosecutors have an affirmative duty to prosecute any crime established to have taken place by a complaining party in the absence of good cause not to do so. Governmental immunity is also weaker in those systems. I know nothing one way or the other, however, about citizen arrest powers in those countries. – ohwilleke Nov 23 '16 at 23:48
  • Most civil law statutes are based on Germany or France. France: "Allows any person to arrest a person having been caught in flagrante delicto committing a crime punishable by a jail or prison term"; Germany "Citizen's arrests can be made . . . if the arrestee is caught in flagrante delicto and either the identity of the person cannot be otherwise established immediately or he/she is suspected to try to flee. . . . the crime [does not have] to be serious." en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Citizen's_arrest I don't know if traffic violations count as crimes in these countries. – ohwilleke Nov 23 '16 at 23:55
  • "Very few states allow anyone other than a prosecutor" - interesting. England and Wales allow anyone to prosecute (although there are a few offences which require permission from the Attorney General, and the Attorney General has the option to take over any private prosecutions - and then offer no evidence). – Martin Bonner Nov 25 '16 at 11:36
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This is governed by state law, though it originates in the medieval obligation to join the arrest mob and is a long-standing part of common law. California Penal Code section 837 says that

A private person may arrest another:

  1. For a public offense committed or attempted in his presence.

  2. When the person arrested has committed a felony, although not in his presence.

  3. When a felony has been in fact committed, and he has reasonable cause for believing the person arrested to have committed it.

Cal Pen 16 defines "Crimes and public offenses" to include felonies, misdemeanors and infractions, which thus includes speeding and parking violations. On the other hand, Washington has no citizen's arrest statute, and relies on the common law tradition (which is statutorily incorporated into the law), which means that it's not clear what the boundaries are. The Department of Licensing sets for a position here, which is relevant for security guards (who need to know if they can do it). In State v. Gonzales, 24 Wn. App. 437 affirmed that a citizen has the right to arrest for a misdemeanor committed in their presence. There does not appear to be any right to arrest for ordinary speeding (which means that the police also cannot arrest you, though there are criminal types of speeding such as reckless endangerment).

  • Regardless of any citizens arrest laws that might exist across the country, trying to affect one onto a police officer is just a blatantly stupid thing to do. It probably won't go well for you. If you're insistent on some action being taken, there are much better ways than to directly confront a trained officer. – animuson Nov 26 '16 at 5:46

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