A Conservative Cop’s Take on Criminal Justice Reform: Citation in Lieu of Arrest


April 4, 2019 4:37PM

Take a moment and think about a police officer arresting someone. In the mind of most people is an image of an officer arresting a suspect for assaulting their spouse, abusing children, breaking into a home, or any number of violent crimes. What you likely did not consider were arrests made for minor traffic violations, petty shoplifting, compliance failures—such as forgetting to update the address on your drives license, substance abuse, and many others. The reason you did not think about the second set of crimes is that there is no direct threat to your safety or property. 

Arresting an individual diverts a tremendous amount of time and resources away from other needs. Consider, the time and expense involved in arresting a person for who did not renew their driver’s license. An arrest, journey to the jail, booking process, reporting writing, and returning back to the officers’ assigned area may take one to three hours (depending on the size of the jurisdiction). During this time, the officer is not available to respond to threats against a person’s life, safety, or property. Next, there is a cost for the jail to book, house, and care for the person who has been arrested. It has been estimated that each day Tennessee spends nearly $70,000 to house persons who are arrested on low-level, nonviolent offenses. Finally, the impact on the person arrested and their family is significant. An arrest affects the ability to maintain employment—which can have further detrimental effects, family life is disrupted, and more. 

Thankfully, there is an alternative to arrest for low-level offenders: citation. A citation is an official document identifying the laws violated and commanding the person to appear before a judge at a certain time and date to give an account of their actions. Commonly called “citation in lieu of arrest,” this practice removes or lessons many of the negative impacts identified before. In Tennessee, officers are actually required to issues a citation rather than an arrest for low-level, nonviolent crimes when (1) the public is not endangered, (2) the officer has reasonable proof of the identity of the suspect, and (3) there is no reason to believe the suspect will not appear before the court.

The problem is these requirements are difficult to follow. On one hand, Tennessee law clearly says that low-level, nonviolent criminals should receive citations rather than arrest. On the other, officers are told they should arrest the same person if they cannot ‘prove’—so to speak, that a person will appear for court. This creates a difficult and confusing situation for officers. As a result, officers may opt for arrest, since they do not have to predict if the offender will appear.

What is needed is clear and concise language that encourages officers to issue a citation in lieu of arrest for low-level nonviolent offenses unless there is a clear reason to arrest known to the officer at the time. This adjustment will provide officers more flexibility, preserve resources, increase public safety, and keep more Tennesseans working and at home with their families.

Ben Stickle discusses the issue—and criminal justice more broadly—with Ron Shultis in the video below.