Bipartisan push to reform or repeal state citizen’s arrest law expected

Georgia lawmakers are considering repealing a citizen's arrest law cited by a prosecutor as justification for Ahmaud Arbery's detention before he was killed. In May 2020, hundreds gathered for a rally outside the Glynn County Courthouse to call for the arrest of the men now charged with his murder. Wes Wolfe/Georgia Recorder

Momentum is building to reform Georgia’s citizen’s arrest law, which is steeped in racist history, with key lawmakers and advocates saying they’re optimistic state leaders can agree on an overhaul this year.

Republican Gov. Brian Kemp has pledged that one of his priorities for this year’s legislative session is to work with state leaders to make significant changes to the citizen’s arrest statute, which allows Georgians to use deadly force to prevent criminal activity. Local prosecutors initially used an interpretation of the state’s citizen’s arrest law to justify the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man gunned down in a neighborhood near Brunswick after being chased by several white men. 

But while Kemp’s administration and legislators work on the details, some lawmakers and civil rights organizations say significant changes likely mean getting rid of the core of the law that allows ordinary citizens to detain someone they suspect of crimes. 

If the citizen’s arrest law is repealed or redesigned, it would mark the second year in a row for groundbreaking criminal justice legislation spurred by Arbery’s killing after a bipartisan contingent of Georgia lawmakers passed a historic hate crimes bill in 2020.

Sen. Harold Jones, who helped push the hate crime legislation through the Georgia Senate, said there aren’t many changes to make with the state’s citizen’s arrest law outside of creating a shopkeeper’s exemption for property protection and explicitly prohibiting the use of deadly force. 

“There’s probably not that many areas you really can quote-unquote reform,” said Jones, an Augusta Democrat. “I think those would be the avenues (Kemp) takes, but if not, then it would have to be just a full repeal. There’s not a lot of room to work in with that statue.”

Both GOP and Democratic state lawmakers are on the record pledging to support revamping Georgia’s law that allows homeowners, business owners and security guards to detain someone for certain offenses. Advocates and even some prosecutors say the law is confusing and unneeded when police are more likely to be close by than when the Civil War-era law was passed.

Repealing the citizen’s arrest law wouldn’t completely prevent someone from using justifiable deadly force in self-defense since the state has a castle doctrine that, for example, allows someone to use it if their home is broken into.

Rep. Chuck Efstration, who helped sponsor last year’s hate crimes law, said now that the governor is involved, he will hold onto his bill to repeal Georgia’s citizen’s arrest law while carving out exceptions for homeowners and business owners.

The Dacula Republican also chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee that hosted hearings last year on the law. Efstration said he’s interested to hear what Kemp has in store regarding changes to citizen’s arrest. So far, the governor hasn’t offered details.

“Anytime the governor’s administration makes an issue a legislative priority, it garners a great deal of attention and can give a great possibility for ultimate passage,” Efstration said. “All the advocates who have been working with me, I informed them… when I learned of this that they’re encouraged to fully work with the administration to craft the best possible bill.”

Among the civil rights organizations pushing for the law’s repeal is the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia. It’s a statute, executive director Andrea Young says, that harkens back to a time when white people could create slave patrols to capture Black people. 

People have a right to feel safe inside their own homes, but the citizens’ arrest law steps way outside of that, she said. 

“We’re concerned about how trained police officers use force, use their authority to make arrests, and so it’s certainly not a power that we want to just give to random people,” Young said.

The Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council of Georgia also says parts of the law need to be repealed.

“The part about a citizen making an arrest, which by necessity means not only you’re arresting the person, but somehow you have to transport the person which could create a lot of trouble,” Executive Director Pete Skandalakis said. “We’re all in favor of repealing that section of citizen’s arrest.”

Kemp’s announcement about overhauling the law was not a surprise to the Georgia NAACP, which met with the governor’s administration last year about citizen’s arrest and other criminal justice reform efforts.

“We have been working diligently over the past year to get to this point, and we hope that the end result will be a complete repeal of citizen’s arrest while still maintaining the shopkeeper’s privilege that is already included in Georgia code,” NAACP State President Rev. James Woodall said.

The video of Arbery’s killing publicly released in May showed many Georgians how the law is ripe for abuse and can have deadly consequences, Kemp said.

Arbery’s death became a rallying cry as demonstrations across Georgia and the nation amplified outrage over violence against Black people. 

Three men now sit in the Glynn County jail, charged with Arbery’s killing

 “Attempts were made to justify that disgusting sinister act of violence using an antiquated language in our law that enables evil motives,” the governor said at a Jan. 15 celebration for Martin Luther King Jr. held at the state Capitol.

“We should do everything we can to ensure that something like that never happens again in this state. That’s why I’m committed to working with leaders in both legislative chambers to overhaul that statute and send the message that we will continue to fight injustice.”