Arrest Powers and Stopping Cars

Today’s Burning Question: We were returning from an alarm and we saw a car driving erratically. We were afraid the car was going to kill someone – so we turned on our emergency lights and siren and the car pulled over for us. We detained the driver until police could arrive. Could we get in trouble?

Answer: Firefighters have the ability to effect a "Citizen's Arrest", just like any other person may. In most states a citizen's arrest may be made when someone has committed a misdemeanor in your presence or you have probable cause to believe the person has committed a felony. That is the good news. There is also some more good news. You also have the right to use reasonable force to effect the arrest.

The bad news is while police officers have liability protection in the event they make a good-faith mistake, firefighters do not. In other words – any arrest you make you had best be 100% in the right. If you are wrong – even if you act in good faith, you could be liable for false arrest.

As for using a fire truck's status as an emergency vehicle to pull over a vehicle… is that the use of "reasonable force"?


About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 45 years of fire service experience and 35 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014, 4th ed. 2022) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.

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