A vigilante is essentially someone who takes the law into their own hands when they believe that the law is not doing enough to ensure justice. Sometimes, a group of citizens form to undertake the law enforcement responsibilities of their community, without any legal authority, according to their own sense of right and wrong.

For example, neighborhood watches work with local police, but they have no authority to make arrests or take actions, as that is typically reserved for police officers. Thus, when a neighborhood watch takes matters into its own hands, instead of sharing information with local peace officers, it may be considered an act of vigilantism.

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 affected by that lawlessness.

Most vigilantism is motivated by the feeling that the vigilante needs to step in in order to obtain justice. Some other motivations include:

  • A personal agenda to protest existing laws that the vigilante finds unacceptable or a hindrance to justice;
  • Enforcing existing laws more efficiently, such as harsher punishments for those that the vigilante feels should be more harshly punished;
  • Calling attention to one’s belief of a higher law; or
  • Calling attention to a perceived failure by the government.

Many vigilantes have good intentions, and believe they are bettering their communities by protecting those vulnerable to legal exploitation. However, that is not always the case. Some vigilante efforts include 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, nearly every aspect of vigilantism is.

Another aspect to consider is the social definition of a vigilante versus the actual definition. Batman is technically a vigilante, as are most superheroes you read about in the comic books.

These are people who are usually breaking the law to protect others, and many people think of them when they hear “vigilante” or “vigilantism.” The true definition is quite different, and refers to someone who is, in their own way, enforcing the law that already exists.

Are there Any Punishments for Vigilantism?

The punishment for vigilantism greatly depends on the actual act. For example, if a person believes that a suspected murderer is not being punished appropriately, and they take matters into their own hands and murder the murderer, the vigilante would be charged with murder themselves. However, in general, liability for retaliating, or taking the law into one’s own hands, is just as severe as any other illegal act.

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 lead to the apprehension of a much more serious 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 circumstances of the situation will come into play if the jury, or even the judge, are 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/or 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 the “heat of passion” 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 also 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 intention, vigilantism is illegal. Further, it is generally understood that acts of vigilantism are committed in the name of revenge. Revenge means that the act was aggravated, and is therefore considered to be a worse offense than committing the act for no reason.

Thus, as previously mentioned, although vigilantism itself is not illegal, nearly everything related to being a vigilante is. If you are in a situation in which 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.