Those considering becoming a personal security guard and those considering employing them are often curious: “What legal powers does a security guard have?” You may also be curious if you’re not in either of those positions. Maybe you passed an armed guard recently and wondered, “what can he do, really, if something were to happen?”
What Can a Security Guard Do?
Armed security officers and unarmed guards are privately employed by either professional security companies that contract out guard services, or they’re employed directly as an in-house guard for a company. While some are licensed by state or local law enforcement agencies, they do not have specific legal authority as the police do.
However, if granted the power by their local authorities, a security guard– on property over which they have jurisdiction– have legal powers to carry out the following:
While police officers have powers of arrest on probable cause, a security guard has to have observed a real crime for an arrest to be legal. Specifically, they must have witnessed a felony. And it’s important to keep in mind that “arrest” essentially, simply means detaining the suspect. As private citizens, personal guards are, in most cases, held to the same standards as every other citizen.
This is called a citizen’s arrest. It consists of the guard apprehending the criminal or trespasser, contacting the authorities immediately to make a true arrest. Restraint may be used to apprehend the suspect as long as the restraint is considered reasonable.
Jurisdiction on Private Property
A (non-police) security guard’s jurisdiction is restricted to the property they have been hired to protect. They are authorized to require a person to stop performing prohibited acts and ask them to leave the private property. If the conduct continues, a security guard may detain the person under citizen’s arrest.
Using “reasonable force” is permitted when removing or apprehending an individual on private property. Using force should be reasonable based on the severity of the criminal offense at hand, the risk facing the guard and other people.
While use of reasonable force is acceptable, it is critical for guards to act with caution and not with impulse; use of unnecessary force, especially including weapons, can lead to damages– not only physically, but in legal procedures. If a security guard exceeds his or her legal bounds by detaining, questioning, or using force beyond self-defense, it can mean serious trouble for the guard and for the guard company they’re employed by.
Generally, a security guard is not licensed to search an individual without their express permission. Even if they believe the person possesses stolen property, searching another citizen’s person or property is not permitted.
The power to search is very limited because of U.S. law’s protection of the rights of the individual. The right to search personal property is typically limited to police or must be performed with a warrant or consent.
Nevertheless, if the security guard has reason to believe the individual has a weapon, they can search and disarm the individual while making a citizen’s arrest.
Search is also permitted in cases where consent has been given by contract– such as by employees of a company when the company has required signed contracts saying such searches might be done.
The Bottom Line
Professional security guards can protect life and property with advanced threat detection, effective decision-making, and fast response time. The hope is that an armed security guard never has to discharge their weapon and that security may be maintained without using force or needing to exercise powers of arrest.