Powers of Private Security

What is the legal status of a security guard? Do they have any special authority beyond that of a normal citizen? Can they act as law enforcement? Can they lawfully arrest or detain someone? Can they use physical force against a non-compliant person? Can they take someone’s life? This article will answer these questions and more by providing an overview of the legal powers, as well as limitations, of a private security guard.


Legal Status of Private Security

A private security guard shares the same legal status as a private citizen. This means that they are not authorized to take any action against another person that any private citizen would not be permitted to take. A security guard is NOT a law enforcement officer and is prohibited from impersonating or otherwise claiming to be a law enforcement officer.


While private security may wear uniforms that share many elements of the uniforms of local law enforcement (black or navy in color, badge, name tag, shoulder patches, etc.) they are prohibited from wearing anything that suggests they are associated with the police, sheriff’s department, FBI, Homeland Security, or any other law enforcement agency. Both the badges they wear on their chest and the patches they wear on their shoulders identify them as “Security Officers,” “Security Guards,” or “Security Enforcement Officers” so that they are not confused with law enforcement.


Additionally, security vehicles may also resemble those of local law enforcement, but will always be marked as “Security Patrol”, “Private Security,” “Mobile Patrol” or simply “Security.” The lights of security vehicles are also different from those of local law enforcement. For instance, if the police in a particular jurisdiction use red and blue or all blue lights, security vehicles will be prohibited from using blue lights so as not to be confused with a police vehicle. Further, though some states do allow or even require security vehicles to use red lights, most (including New Hampshire) prohibit red lights due to the possible confusion that may arise between security and ambulances or fire department vehicles. Most jurisdictions specify amber and/or green lights for security vehicles. At CERBERUS, we use green lights on all of our patrol vehicles.


Can a Security Guard Arrest Someone?

A private security guard, similar to a private citizen, has the power to arrest anyone that they personally observe committing a felony (e.g. armed robbery, arson, assault, rape, kidnapping, etc.) under the legal doctrine of a “citizen’s arrest.” In addition, in New Hampshire, RSA 627 8-a allows a merchant (i.e. business owner) or his or her agent (e.g. a security guard working for the merchant) to “detain any person who he or she has reasonable grounds to believe has committed the offense of willful concealment, as defined by RSA 637:3-a, on his or her premises as long as necessary to surrender the person to a peace officer, provided such detention is conducted in a reasonable manner.”


Though legally permitted to make arrest in certain circumstances as mentioned above, due to liability issues (e.g. failure to properly issue Miranda rights, potential for false imprisonment charges if the observed act was not in fact a felony), security guards will typically not attempt to arrest someone they observe committing an offense that does not involve the current or imminent harm of another person. Rather, they will contact local law enforcement so that they may make the arrest instead.


Security and the Use of Force

As stated previously in this article, a security guard has no special legal authority above that of a private citizen in protecting the people and property they are hired to protect. This applies equally to the ability of a security guard to use physical, including deadly, force against another person. However, this does not mean that a security cannot use physical force, or that a security guard cannot use deadly force when appropriate.


In any state where a private citizen is permitted to use physical force to defend himself or a third-party from physical harm, a security guard may also use physical force to defend himself against a violent attacker or to defend the lives of a client’s customers, guests, or employees. For example, if a customer becomes upset and begins attacking an employee of a business the security guard is hired to protect with her fists, the security guard can use his own fists, as well as any non-lethal tools such as OC spray or a baton, to stop the customer from attacking the employee. A security guard can also use reasonable physical force to remove a trespasser who refuses to respond to verbal commands to leave from a property, including nudging him along or picking him up and placing him outside.


Similar to the laws regarding the use of non-deadly force, in any state where a private citizen is permitted to use deadly force to defend himself or a third-party from a threat that is likely to result in death or great bodily harm, a security guard may also use deadly force in the same circumstance. For example, if a security guard that has been stationed at a bank notices that one of the customers is walking towards the teller counter while holding a gun, the guard has the legal right to draw his own weapon on the customer, issue a verbal command to stop and drop the gun, and use deadly force against him if he refuses.


Further, a security guard, like a private citizen, can also use deadly force against an unarmed threat when there is a significant disparity in power that is likely to result in the death of, or serious injury to, the guard. For example, if a group of 3 middle-aged men, all of average height, weight, and physical ability, begin attacking a security guard with nothing more than their hands and feet, the security guard may use deadly force against them as the disparity of power between the attackers and the guard is significantly in favor of the attackers.


The Role of Security

As you have learned from this article, security guards are private citizens and, unlike law enforcement officer, do not possess any special legal powers or authority. However, this is not as much of a limitation as it may seem. While a private citizen may have the same rights and abilities to intercept an attack on your customers, guests, or employees, relying on such a person is leaving the safety of your people and your property to chance.


A security guard is trained and prepared to deal with incidents of all types, from robbery and vandalism to fire evacuations and heart attacks – a private citizen is not. A security guard has one role and one focus when they are on the job, to keep your people and your property safe – a private citizen will likely be as surprised as you if something happens and likely be unable to respond in time. A security guard creates a visible presence that signals to clients that you take their safety seriously and to would-be criminals that they are not likely to be successful in whatever they might have planned – a private citizen does not have this psychological effect.

While security guards are not law enforcement, they can still have a strong impact on your business through their dedication and willingness to protect your assets at all costs.