Citizens can do many things the police can do: Citizens can detain people, get court orders, and so on. Citizens can't send people to jail (although these days many jails are private).

Is there any distinction between citizens and police? Are police just a government-sponsored security guards?

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    False equivalences abound here. Citizens can only detain others for a very limited time under very limited circumstances. Civilian court orders are not possible at all for things the police routinely do (and that's basically what warrants are, in some respects). There are numerous other things police can do that would be illegal or illegitimate for civilians outside of the judicial process to even try, let alone have any legal bearing.
    – user4657
    Jul 8, 2020 at 3:59
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    Interestingly, citizens can also do things that police are not allowed to do. Like your nosy neighbour looking out of the window all the time and checking what you're doing, without any good reason.
    – gnasher729
    Jul 8, 2020 at 22:59
  • @gnasher729 I take your point, but this might not be the best example. In general, the police only need a warrant to look at your stuff if it is reasonable for you to expect that stuff to be private. So, for example, they could park a car in front of your house and watch you for no particular reason. Or they could take a coffee cup you threw into a trash can at Starbucks and use it to get your DNA. (In fact, in Greenwood v. California, the Court said police could even dig around in your garbage can looking for evidence!)
    – Just a guy
    Jul 9, 2020 at 20:12
  • @Justaguy My example came up from a UK court case: The police suspected that an officer on sick leave wasn't actually sick but just tried to get a free paid holiday. So they observed him and found he was making up his illness. Things went to court. And the judge decided that the police was NOT allowed to observe a random person like that. (But in this case they acted not as police but as employer, and the employer can do this, even if the employer is the police force, so what they did was legal in this exceptional case).
    – gnasher729
    May 12, 2021 at 7:43

1 Answer 1



A non-exhaustive list:

  1. At common law, a police officer can arrest without warrant any person the officer reasonably suspects has committed a felony. A private citizen can arrest without warrant only where a felony has actually been committed. Both police officers and private citizens can arrest without a warrant a person who commits a breach of the peace, or where it is reasonably believed that the person is about to commit a breach of the peace.
  1. In NSW a police officer’s common law duty to take a person before a justice as soon as practicable after arrest has been replaced by a statutory scheme introduced by the Crimes Amendment (Detention After Arrest) Act 1997. Under Part 10A police may detain a person for investigation for 4 hours, or for a further period not exceeding 8 hours if a warrant to extend the investigation period is obtained.
  1. Police can detain people 'for their own good' - for example, an intoxicated or drug-affected person; private citizens can't.

  2. Police can stop and search a suspect before an arrest on reasonable grounds; private citizens can't.

  3. Police can give directions to the public (the 'move-along' power); private citizens can't.

  4. Police can demand a person's name and address; private citizens can't.

  5. Police can demand disclosure of the identity of a driver and passengers in a motor vehicle; private citizens can't.

  6. Police can stop and search vehicles (including the road block power); private citizens can't.

  7. Police can conduct forensic procedures; private citizens can't.

  8. Police can conduct customs inspections (as can customs officers); private citizens can't.

  9. Police can search for internally concealed drugs; private citizens can't.

  10. Police can execute search warrants; private citizens can't.

  11. etc.

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