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If a victim catches a pickpocket in the act, what degree of force is legally justified by the victim against the pickpocket, given that pickpockets do not usually pose a threat of violence, but the victim wants their property back?

Can the victim grab, tackle, or punch the pickpocket? Can the victim say, "Give back my wallet or I will punch you"? Can the victim shoot the pickpocket and claim heat of passion as a defense? Does the answer vary depending on which of the two people would be at an advantage in a physical confrontation, based on size, age or gender?

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In the U.S., this is largely a question of state law and while similar from state to state, it is not identical.

In Colorado, which basically follows the majority rule, there are a couple of justifications that could be available: (1) the use of force justified for defense of property, and (2) the use of force justified for a citizen's arrest.

In the case of defense of property, the rule is as follows:

Use of physical force in defense of property

A person is justified in using reasonable and appropriate physical force upon another person when and to the extent that he reasonably believes it necessary to prevent what he reasonably believes to be an attempt by the other person to commit theft, criminal mischief, or criminal tampering involving property, but he may use deadly physical force under these circumstances only in defense of himself or another as described in section 18-1-704.

Colo. Rev. Statutes § 18-1-706.

In the case of a citizen's arrest, the rule is:

A private person acting on his own account is justified in using reasonable and appropriate physical force upon another person when and to the extent that he reasonably believes it necessary to effect an arrest, or to prevent the escape from custody of an arrested person who has committed an offense in his presence; but he is justified in using deadly physical force for the purpose only when he reasonably believes it necessary to defend himself or a third person from what he reasonably believes to be the use or imminent use of deadly physical force.

Colo. Rev. Stat. § 18-1-707(7).

Can the victim shoot the pickpocket and claim heat of passion as a defense?

No.

Deadly force is not authorized against a pickpocket, and shooting someone almost always counts (often by definition) as a use of deadly force.

The "heat of passion" defense only downgrades a murder charge to manslaughter and probably wouldn't apply in any case in these circumstances.

Can the victim grab, tackle, or punch the pickpocket? Can the victim say, "Give back my wallet or I will punch you"? Does the answer vary depending on which of the two people would be at an advantage in a physical confrontation, based on size, age or gender?

The law doesn't answer these question at this level of specificity.

Whether the force used was "reasonable and appropriate" and was "reasonably believed to be necessary" are determined after the fact on a case by case basis by the finder of fact (i.e. the judge in a bench trial, or the jury in a jury trial).

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Force could be justified as defence of property (Criminal Code, s. 35) or as a citizen's arrest (Criminal Code, s. 494).

Defence of property

The act committed in defence of property must be "reasonable in the circumstances" (s. 35(1)(d)). The Supreme Court has said (R. v. Szczerbaniwicz, 2010 SCC 15, paragraph 21):

The reasonableness of “all the circumstances” necessarily includes the accused’s subjective belief as to the nature of the danger or harm, but the objective component of the defence is also required: the subjective belief must be based on reasonable grounds. ...

This includes a consideration of subjective and objective criteria, including the value of the property and risk of harm to the property as part of the proportionality analysis (see R. v. Szczerbaniwicz, 2010 SCC 15, paragraphs 21-24).

Citizen's arrest

See R. v. Theriault, 2020 ONSC 3317, paragraphs 232-233

Where an arrest requires the use of force, the person conducting the arrest must use only the amount of force that is reasonably required in the circumstances. ...

Assessing whether the degree of force used to conduct an arrest is justified is not an exercise of exactitude. The court should not hold a person conducting an arrest to a standard of perfection. A person conducting an arrest is often placed in a dangerous, fast-paced situation where it may be difficult, if not impossible, to measure the degree of force required with precision. ...

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Heat of passion would not be advised to claim as "killing in the heat of passion" is generally the definition of second degree murder. This would be self-defense (which can more broadly be labeled as defense of property, self, and others.).

Generally, self-defense allows those who are immediate victims of crime or witnesses to the victimization of others may use the minimum amount of force necessary to stop the crime in progress, up to and including lethal force.

What this means is that, if mere threat of physical violence prevents the crime, then that is a valid self-defense. It is not valid to let the crook run away and shoot them in the back. However, the victim of the crime does not need to make a statement invoking their right to self-defense to the crook before taking action. If a pick pocket is as unfortunate enough to get caught in the act of steal the wallet of a person who is armed and has a valid conceal carry permit, a situation may arise where firing said weapon is protected, though generally it may be wiser to merely brandish the weapon and assert the demand of the return of property. Generally lethal force requires the situation to be such that a reasonable person would fear for their life if they were in said situation.

Note that the exact laws of when self-defense is valid and not differ depending on your state. Broadly speaking, states break down into "Duty to Flee" states, which make self-defense valid if there was a reasonable way that a victim could flee from a criminal, and "Stand your ground" states, which assume that the potential victim had every right to be where he was because nobody has the right to commit a crime, thus there is no duty to flee required to validly protect yourself in a public place.

It should also be pointed out that Duty to Flee vs. Stand your Ground laws pertain to self-defense in publicly accessible spaces. On private property that you own or have permission to be present on/in, all 50 states employ the "Castle Doctrine" which allows for the use of force to expel trespassers from your property. Generally, if they step into open land that you own, you must first give notice that they are trespassing... however, if they break into a building on your property, you have every right to defend yourself without notice. There are cases of cops who served no-knock warrants to the wrong address and gotten shot... and the homeowner was not prosecuted for shooting a police officer (The case I'm most aware of, the officer who was shot did survive.).

So yes, you can punch and even shoot a pick pocketer who is trying to take your wallet.

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