The emergency services dispatch of Small-town, USA receives a call from a citizen near city limits. The citizen placed the call after he drove past a roadkill deer off to the side of the road. It is clearly mortally wounded, and will not survive, but was not killed in the impact, and is slowly dying. To my knowledge, a LEO is the only one with the authority – save a wildlife related authority – who could discharge a firearm for the purpose of euthanizing a wounded animal. So my question here is:

Can an officer legally authorize the citizen to shoot the animal instead?

(Since the call is so far out it may not be worth the police resources if there are other calls to handle.)

If so:

Does this apply to dispatch as well? Can the officer allow dispatch to tell the citizen that he has permission?

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    Police dispatch operators are not sworn officers and typically are not formally trained in law enforcement (e.g. attending a police academy) at all (though they may know a lot by virtue of their role), so they definitely would not be authorized to 'give permission' for anything to anyone. They are just relay information.
    – TylerH
    Commented Jan 8, 2021 at 14:40
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    "To my knowledge, a LEO is the only one with the authority - save a wildlife related authority" - I don't think that is accurate. Perhaps not in codified law, but in reality. "It was suffering, I shot it." wouldn't raise an eyebrow in much of America. I would be curious to read any specific state law on this. Time permitting I will try to look this up. It may be helpful to the general question to remove the specific example and keep it general
    – Freiheit
    Commented Jan 8, 2021 at 16:11
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    I grew up in small town USA. This happens a TON. Some residents would shoot the deer (and possibly take it for meat) with no fear knowing it was hit before. Others would get the OK from the police department who would be receiving a huge favor as police vehicles - even in smalltown - are not made for moving deer (so they would have to call out a disposal or tow truck). So yes local police - ALL THE TIME - gives OK for things like this. This in no way at all is them deputizing that citizen or giving them special powers so this question is a bit off.
    – blankip
    Commented Jan 8, 2021 at 16:36
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    @blankip I agree that it happens a lot, but is it technically illegal by the book even though its a very pragmatic solution? I'm not sure if this would qualify as deputization since this is a very minor issue compared to other scenarios like arrests and such.
    – Razmode
    Commented Jan 8, 2021 at 21:06
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    @Razmode - it is only a civil offense to shoot a wild animal out of season. The police OKing you to do this is akin to them telling you to j-walk to get out of the way of an accident scene. This is not making you a deputy - which is the act of law enforcement giving powers to people to act as law enforcement. He told you that you could shoot a deer, not that you could tell others they could shoot a deer.
    – blankip
    Commented Jan 9, 2021 at 4:54

2 Answers 2


Short Answer

This is governed by state law (for state law enforcement officers granting this authority) or federal law (in the case of authority granted by a federal law enforcement officer), so the details may vary from case to case.

In many circumstances, however, a law enforcement officer has the authority to temporarily 'grant' his authority to another private citizen in order to deal with a specific incident.

When this is done one says that the law enforcement officer "deputized" the person who was given this authority.

Long Answer

The Power To Deputize Civilians

Most states have statutory circumstances under which certain kinds of law enforcement officers can deputize a non-law enforcement officer to carry out a law enforcement function under the supervision, direction and control of a law enforcement officer, on an incident by incident basis.

For example, if a single sheriff responds to a bar fight with several people who need to be arrested, under most state's law, the sheriff could authorize a bouncer or patron at the bar who wouldn't have the power to make a citizen's arrest under the circumstances (e.g. because the patron arrived at the scene after the alleged fight took place) to detain a suspect whom the sheriff has the power to arrest, until additional law enforcement personnel can come to the scene to assist.

Colorado Revised Statutes § 16-3-202 is typical of such a statute. It states:

(1) A peace officer making an arrest may command the assistance of any person who is in the vicinity.

(2) A person commanded to assist a peace officer has the same authority to arrest as the officer who commands his assistance.

(3) A person commanded to assist a peace officer in making an arrest shall not be civilly or criminally liable for any reasonable conduct in aid of the officer or for any acts expressly directed by the officer.

(4) Private citizens, acting in good faith, shall be immune from any civil liability for reporting to any police officer or law enforcement authority the commission or suspected commission of any crime or for giving other information to aid in the prevention of any crime.

Further, another Colorado statute provides that "conduct which would otherwise constitute an offense is justifiable and not criminal when it is required or authorized by a provision of law or a judicial decree binding in Colorado," including laws "defining duties of private citizens to assist public servants in the performance of certain of their functions." Colorado Revised Statutes § 18-1-701 (in pertinent parts).

The exact details of how someone is deputized, who may deputize someone, and what authority this conveys varies in detail from state to state. Also, often this is done piecemeal, rather than globally, or is implied in part under common law agency principles. The power of a law enforcement officer to deputize someone to kill a dying deer hit in a car accident is likely to be in a different statutory section than the power of a law enforcement officer to deputize someone to make an arrest.

People who are deputized by a law enforcement officer in this fashion are collectively called a posse.

The posse was heavily used in rural areas and frontier areas into the early 20th century, but this authority is now, while still utilized, much less commonly used, and less familiar, especially in urban areas with large professional police departments. In these areas, it is more common for police to resort to mutual aid agreements with regional law enforcement agencies to seek reinforcements who are law enforcement officers at some other agency, rather than seeking help from private citizens.

Other Solutions

Often, conduct that literally fits the definition of prohibited conduct, like possession of a wildlife carcass without a license, is resolved in regulations or definitions in a statute or regulation that exclude the conduct in question from what is prohibited.

For example, in Colorado, the definition of hunting, which is what you need a license to do, is defined in such a way as to exclude road kill related incidents. See, e.g., Colorado Revised Statutes § 33-1-102(25.5), (29) and (43).

The Legal Doctrine Of Reliance On Official Authority

There is also another legal doctrine that can make it possible to achieve almost the same result.

As a matter of U.S. Constitutional law, the U.S. Supreme Court has held that a criminal defendant may not be punished for actions taken in good faith reliance upon authoritative assurances that the defendant will not be punished for his actions. See U.S. v. Laub, 385 U.S. 475 (1967); Cox v. Louisiana, 379 U.S. 559 (1965); and Raley v. Ohio, 360 U.S. 423 (1959).

For example, suppose that a 911 dispatcher tells a passing motorist that she has the authority to authorize the motorist to shoot and kill the deer because she is deputizing the motorist to do so, and that the applicable state law actually provides that a private citizen may be deputized to euthanize a deer struck in a car accident when a law enforcement officer deputizing the citizen is physically present. Despite this fact, if the motorist has no reason to believe that the dispatcher doesn't have this authority (even though the dispatcher does not have this authority under state law), the motorist is immune from criminal liability for shooting a deer out of season without a license pursuant to the U.S. Supreme Court cases cited above.

And, while the dispatcher's conduct may have technically violated state law by directing someone to violate the law under circumstances when the dispatcher did not have the authority to do so, the District Attorney is likely to decide that this technical violation of the state's hunting laws by the dispatcher, whether or not the dispatcher knew that the dispatcher did not have the authority to deputize the motorist, is not an offense that warrants prosecution. Indeed, prosecutors routinely overlook technical violations of the law by law enforcement officers who are carrying out their duties in good faith or for other non-selfish reasons (e.g. out of a desire to treat the downed deer humanely without diverting law enforcement resources urgently needed elsewhere at the time).

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    I remember a case where someone received a Miranda-type warning, and so refused to testify, but then was prosecuted for contempt on the basis that since they had previously been given immunity, the Fifth Amendment didn't apply. It was later dismissed. The basis of the dismissal was entrapment rather than Reliance On Official Authority, but in that case, and in the hypothetical presented by the OP, they're closely related. Commented Jan 8, 2021 at 7:38
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    "prosecutors routinely overlook technical violations of the law by law enforcement officers who are carrying out their duties in good faith or for other non-selfish reasons" They routinely overlook violations by LEOs who are not acting in good faith, too. In fact they have 'qualified immunity' from civil consequences of their actions while 'working' nationwide, although very recently Congress has considered reviewing/removing that protection.
    – TylerH
    Commented Jan 8, 2021 at 14:43
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    Re, "...sheriff could authorize a...patron at the bar...to detain a suspect." I'd have thought that, in most jurisdictions, anybody is allowed to detain a criminal suspect. That is, assuming "detain" means, "summon a police officer, and prevent the suspect from fleeing the scene before the officer arrives." That's much less serious than arrest. (The definition of "arrest" having somewhat in common with the definition of "kidnapping.") Commented Jan 8, 2021 at 15:54
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    @SolomonSlow: there are limits on how much force non-police, can be used to detain a person in a given circumstance, but deputizing would allow the non-police to turn the heat up a little bit. Commented Jan 8, 2021 at 20:28
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    @SolomonSlow Generally speaking, the power of a private citizen to make an arrest is limited to crimes that the citizen making the arrest personally saw being committed. A patron at the bar at the time of the fight could make a citizen's arrest. Someone who came into the bar five minutes later and doesn't have directly personal knowledge of the crime generally does not have the right to make a citizen's arrest.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Jan 9, 2021 at 3:06

This is governed by state law. For example, regulations in the state of Washington allow veterinarians to euthanize wildlife under certain circumstances, and in a separate regulation,

Only a law enforcement officer or individuals or entities authorized by the department may euthanize an animal injured in a motor vehicle collision and that deer or elk may be taken for salvage

(the department being Fish and Wildlife). There is no general power to deputize, there are circumstances where a tribal police officer can be deputized by state or local government to act as general authority Washington peace officers (which they are not). However, this is not an on-the-spot deputization, it's a bureaucratic process performed by the government and not by any other officer, ad libitum. In general, a person deputized must already be a peace officer (thus empowered to euthanize). Things were looser in the olden days.

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