Vigilantism is the act of preventing, investigating, and punishing perceived offenses and crimes without legal authority.
A vigilante is a person who takes the law into their own hands when they believe that the law is not doing enough to ensure justice. Sometimes, citizens form a group of vigilantes to police their community independently, without legal authority. They do not necessarily enforce the laws of their jurisdiction but rather operate by their own sense of right and wrong.
The groups we are most familiar with, such as the people at “neighborhood watch” get-togethers, often work closely with local police, but they have no authority to make arrests or take any policing action. If a neighborhood watch group goes beyond such efforts to help peace officers, such as sharing information with them, and instead takes matters into its own hands, it may be considered vigilantism.
The word vigilantism can also be used to describe a general state of lawlessness or chaos when competing groups of people, such as opposing gangs, all claim to enforce the law in a given area where there is not enough police presence to meet the demand, and the area has fallen into lawlessness.
Vigilantes inflict punishments on the people they believe have committed crimes, just as the government does. The difference is that vigilantes do not see the need to give the potential criminal any real trial. Unrestrained vigilantism led to France’s 1793 Reign of Terror, during which nearly 42,000 people were executed without trial.
Vigilantes in the United States
In the United States, lynching has been the most common form of vigilantism. It probably began after the nation was founded and has continued during the 20th century – it was practiced through the early years of the civil rights movement, extending through the late 1960s.
There have been many cases of sustained vigilantism here, including:
- In San Francisco, the need for civilian crime patrol was apparent with the explosive population growth following the discovery of gold in 1848. The small town of about 900 individuals grew rapidly to a booming city of over 20,000. This overwhelming population growth made it nearly impossible for the official law enforcement community to keep citizens safe. This resulted in a series of temporary vigilante programs, each lasting 3 months and then voluntarily disbanded. The groups were called “Committees of Vigilance.”
- In 1981, a resident of the rural town of Skidmore, Missouri, fatally shot the town bully in broad daylight after the bully had committed crimes for several years without any punishment. Forty-five people witnessed the shooting, but everybody kept quiet when it came time to identify the shooter.
- Formed in 2000, “Ranch Rescue” is still a functioning vigilante organization in the southwest United States. Ranchers call upon Ranch Rescue to remove illegal immigrants and squatters from their property.
- In 2013, the FBI apprehended members of a New York divorce coercion gang, a rabbinical group that administered beatings and torture to Jewish men to force them to grant their wives religious divorces.
What Motivates Vigilantes?
Most vigilantism is motivated by the feeling that the vigilante needs to step in to obtain justice for the community. Some other motivations include:
- The desire to see existing laws enforced more strictly, such as harsher punishments for those that the vigilante feels should be more harshly punished. This is what has led to bombings of abortion clinics
- A personal agenda to protest existing laws that the vigilante finds unacceptable
- Calling attention to one’s belief in a higher law
- Calling attention to a perceived failure by the government
Many vigilantes believe they are bettering their communities by protecting those vulnerable to criminal exploitation. However, that is not always the case. Some vigilante efforts involve targeting the poor, minorities, and other disenfranchised groups that the vigilante believes should not exist in their ideal society. This is why all vigilantism is generally considered to be dangerous. Although being a vigilante is not technically illegal, many of the actions taken by vigilantes are.
Where Do Vigilantes Believe They Derive Their Authority?
Early after the founding of the United States, there had not yet been enough time to draw up a full set of laws nor the time to hire and train professional police officers. In this situation, it became common for townspeople to effect a “citizen’s arrest.”
Based on English common law and protected by the U.S. Constitution, civilians would arrest people when they had seen a crime being committed or suspected someone of committing a crime. After arresting someone, they would bring them to the jailhouse, and a regular trial would be held. This was not vigilantism because the citizens inflicted no punishment.
Citizen’s arrests are still valid today. Vigilantes sometimes claim they have the authority to act against perceived criminals by claiming they are simply conducting citizen’s arrests. They are wrong. In the early days, people would sometimes drag the prisoner out of jail and carry out the punishment before a trial was held; that was vigilantism. When they ended someone’s life, they were committing murder. That is true today as well.
Are there any Punishments for Vigilantism?
The punishment for vigilantism depends on the actual acts committed by the vigilante. For example, if a person believes that a suspected murderer is not being punished appropriately and takes matters into their own hands and murders the murderer, the vigilante would be charged with murder themselves.
It is almost a certainty that the state will prosecute the vigilante. Although the vigilante may have had good intentions, and although their actions may have led to the apprehension of a much more dangerous criminal, the fact remains that the vigilante broke the law and must face the consequences.
There are, of course, some exceptions that could mitigate the outcome of the punishment. The situation’s circumstances will come into play if the jury, or even the judge, is sympathetic to the cause. A very good example of this is if a parent seeks justice for their murdered child by killing their child’s murderer. The judge and the jury would probably be more sympathetic to the intentions of the parent of the murdered child. This could result in a lesser sentence, as a “heat of passion” defense may reduce the sentence from murder to manslaughter.
Another aspect is public outcry. If the public is protesting that the vigilante was justified in their actions and should not receive punishment to the fullest extent of the law, a prosecutor might be pushed into agreeing to a plea bargain rather than having a public trial. This may result in a lesser sentence.
Do I Need an Attorney for Assistance with Vigilante Liability Issues?
There is a very thin line between serving the public and breaking the law. Regardless of your intentions, vigilantism is illegal.
If you are in a situation where you have retaliated and taken matters of the law into your own hands, you will need to contact a knowledgeable and well-qualified criminal defense attorney immediately.
An experienced attorney will help you understand your options, discuss potential legal consequences, and represent you in court. In addition, they may be able to argue a lesser sentence for you by presenting the court with facts that would make them more sympathetic to the circumstances of your case.