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Citizen’s Arrest Laws: How to Commit Legal Murder in SC

by | Dec 4, 2021 | Criminal Defense News, Legislation

It is long past time for the SC legislature to repeal SC’s citizen’s arrest laws and replace them with an updated, modern version that makes sense.

Our citizen’s arrest laws:

  • Are vague, allowing an arrest – without the involvement of law enforcement – based on someone’s subjective suspicions,
  • Do not require a person to call law enforcement after an arrest is made, instead directing a person to take their suspect to a judge or magistrate, and
  • Authorize anyone to kill a person based only on their suspicion that the person intended to commit a felony (with no evidence that a crime has even been committed).

Georgia has repealed their citizen’s arrest law, after similar language in it was used in an attempt to justify the murder of Ahmaud Arbery. Other states have repealed and replaced their outdated citizen’s arrest laws, including our other neighbor, North Carolina.

Of course, there is no such thing as “legal murder,” although it makes for a catchy title for a blog post. If it’s legal, it’s not murder by definition – murder is an unjustified killing. SC’s citizen’s arrest laws do, however, make legal conduct that most people would agree is murder.

Is it really that bad? You may need to read our citizen’s arrest laws to understand why it is necessary to replace them. Let’ have a look.

SC Code § 17-13-10: When Any Person May Arrest a Felon or Thief

SC Code § 17-13-10 authorizes any person to arrest “a felon or thief” when 1) they see a felony being committed, 2) they have “certain information” that a felony has been committed, or 3) they see a larceny being committed:

Upon (a) view of a felony committed, (b) certain information that a felony has been committed or (c) view of a larceny committed, any person may arrest the felon or thief and take him to a judge or magistrate, to be dealt with according to law.

There is no guidance for how a person should be arrested or how they should be taken to a judge or magistrate, and there is no requirement that the vigilante call law enforcement to assist in the suspect’s arrest and transportation to a magistrate.

Under this code section, you can 1) seize a person, 2) tie them up or put handcuffs on them, and 3) forcibly take them to a magistrate’s office based on your information that some felony has been committed – even if you did not see the crime happen.

Presumably, if your suspect resists your lawful arrest, you have the right to use force to subdue them or even kill them in self-defense…

SC Code § 17-13-20: You can Kill a Suspicious Person in the Nighttime

“In the nighttime,” you have more options – you can arrest a person if they 1) have committed a felony, 2) have entered a dwelling house without permission, 3) have broken into a storage shed “with a view to plunder,” 4) have stolen property in their possession, or 5) appear as if they are about to commit a felony or steal something, and they run when you confront them.

SC Code § 17-13-20 contains more detail about how you can arrest the person – “by efficient means as the darkness and the probability of escape render necessary, even if the life of the person should be taken:”

A citizen may arrest a person in the nighttime by efficient means as the darkness and the probability of escape render necessary, even if the life of the person should be taken, when the person:

(a) has committed a felony;

(b) has entered a dwelling house without express or implied permission;

(c) has broken or is breaking into an outhouse with a view to plunder;

(d) has in his possession stolen property; or

(e) being under circumstances which raise just suspicion of his design to steal or to commit some felony, flees when he is hailed.

If it is efficient due to the darkness and the probability of escape, you are authorized to kill them.

Again, there is no requirement that you call law enforcement or involve law enforcement in any way – you should instead bring the person to the local magistrate, whose office will likely be closed until the next morning.

Why do SC’s Citizen’s Arrest Laws Need to be Revised?

Let’s consider some examples of when, according to the plain language of the words in this statute, it would be okay to kill a person because it was efficient due to the darkness and probability of their escape:

  • If they look suspicious, as if they are about to “steal or commit some felony,” and they run when you “hail” them – “being under circumstances which raise just suspicion of his design to steal or to commit some felony,”
  • If you see someone wearing your friend’s jacket that was stolen from them last week,
  • If you, independently of law enforcement, investigate a crime and believe that you have evidence that they have “committed a felony,”
  • If someone mistakenly walks into your house or apartment without permission and says, “Oh… I’m sorry,”
  • If a drunk person mistakenly enters your house and falls asleep on the couch,
  • If a child wanders into your home without permission,
  • If you see someone breaking into your friend’s storage shed “with a view to plunder,” or
  • If you see someone driving a car that was stolen from your friend last week.

Not even police officers are authorized to kill a suspect to prevent the possibility of escape. Yet, that’s the authority that is given to every non-police officer in the state.

This isn’t a case of an ancient law that isn’t used, that no one thinks about, and that can be forgotten. It has consequences, as we saw with Ahmaud Arbery’s murder in Georgia.

Disclaimer: Nothing contained in this blog post is legal advice – the information contained in this blog is commentary that does not and cannot apply to your individual and unique circumstances. If you need legal advice, give us a call, or call another criminal defense attorney who can advise you based on your situation.

If you make a citizen’s arrest, even if you are following the plain language of SC’s citizen’s arrest laws, you may wind up with criminal charges and a civil lawsuit against you.

Got Axelrod?

If you have been charged with a crime in SC and you believe that SC’s citizen’s arrest laws may provide you with a defense, you can call us for legal advice that is based on your situation.

Call the SC criminal defense trial attorneys at Axelrod & Associates now at 843-353-3449 or email us online to speak with a Myrtle Beach criminal defense lawyer on the Axelrod team today.

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