Anthony Comello wasn't there to whack a mob boss. He just wanted to detain him.
At least, that's the argument made in court documents recently filed by an attorney representing the 24-year-old construction worker, who was charged in the murder of Franceso "Frank" Cali, this March. Instead of that crime, Comello's lawyer claimed, the QAnon-believing suspect drove to Cali's house in a rarefied stretch of Staten Island with a nobler pursuit in mind: He planned to perform a "citizen's arrest" on the reputed head of a major crime family—one he thought to be part of the nebulous "Deep State" touted by conspiracy theorists.
Technically speaking, the attorney for one of the higher-profile murder suspects in recent history was planning to claim his client was not guilty by reason of mental defect, the New York Times reported. But Comello's impending trial is highlighting the precarity of our current moment, with storied institutions like the rule of law and even the government itself seeming to erode before our eyes. In disturbing cases of legitimately outrageous elite conduct—like the Jeffrey Epstein saga, in which prosecutors reached a secret deal with a sex criminal whose past acquaintances reportedly ranged from Bill Clinton to Prince Andrew and Donald Trump—the far right has found fresh material for old conspiracies.
That makes this as opportune a time as any to explore what a citizen's arrest actually is, and whether it could ever possibly be a good idea for someone—conspiracy-fueled or otherwise—to attempt one.
"The bottom line is that a citizen's arrest involves one individual detaining another until the police can arrive," said Ira P. Robbins, a law professor at American University who wrote one of the few scholarly papers on citizen's arrest in the Cornell Journal of Law and Public Policy.
According to Robbins, the concept is medieval in origin. It was "a direct result," he wrote in his paper, "of the lack of an organized police force and practical modes of transportation to get to the scene of a crime expeditiously." Obviously, the act has been rendered at least partly moot in an era of blanket police surveillance and thousands of individual police departments. Citizen's arrests that make the news these days tend to be farcical, heroic, or just plain weird. Enterprising Americans recently detained an alleged carjacker in Detroit, three adults were accused of violently capturing suspected car thieves in Ohio last year, and activists in New Mexico sought to nab a police chief they believed was responsible for wanton brutality in 2014.
Perhaps some cases really do beg for intervention. But the general consensus among lawyers and legal scholars was that, even if law enforcement continues to fail entire segments of the population, citizen's arrests are not worth the risk. That's in part because the laws vary from state to state, and jurisdiction to jurisdiction, but also because the deed itself can be a disaster.
"The circumstances are potentially dangerous, and the laws (which are jurisdiction-specific) are complicated and can often subject the arrester to legal liability," Robbins said.
Steve Lehto, an attorney based in Michigan who cautioned that he was not offering legal advice, agreed, clarifying that there are often several mitigating factors involved.
"Usually, you have to be a witness to the actual offense (it happened in your presence), or the person has committed a felony—and then the citizen must have reasonable cause to believe the arrestee committed the crime," he said. "Most people don't know what a felony is (versus a misdemeanor), and the laws are also wildly different on what happens if the arrestee fights back—can the citizen use force to detain the person? What if they injure the person? What if they have the wrong person?"
In Comello's situation, his lawyer suggested, he opened fire—Cali was shot ten times—because the mafioso had refused to cooperate. Gottlieb argued that Comello, who has pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder and weapons charges, only took out his gun when the mob boss appeared to be going for his own weapon, in his waistband. This was not the first time Comello had attempted some form of a citizen's arrest, either: He had tried, with varying degrees of effort, to detain New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, and two California members of Congress, Adam Schiff and Maxine Waters, all Democrats.
The idea, however dubious, seems to be that Comello had no choice but to take matters into his own hands.
"If that's all true, then Comello isn't like the guys amassing a stockpile or sending pipe bombs or even planning an assassination," said Jack Bratich, an associate professor of journalism and media studies at Rutgers and a scholar of conspiracy theories. "He thought he was within the bounds of the law."
It remains to be seen whether the defense strategy actually succeeds in court. If nothing else, the convergence of absurd conspiracies online in recent years and more bona fide failures of the legal system may be giving the concept of a citizen's arrest fresh appeal to some Americans.
That doesn't mean it's a particularly good idea to actually try one.
"If people are attempting citizen's arrest of people because the police won't arrest them," Lehto said, "that should be a red flag that the underlying arrest might not fly once it's dragged into court."
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