House panel OKs overhaul of citizen’s arrest law cited in Arbery killing

By: - March 4, 2021 3:53 pm

A Georgia House panel advanced a bill March 4 to overhaul Georgia’s citizen’s arrest law, legislation spurred by the 2020 killing of Ahmaud Arbery. A mural of Arbery graces a wall near the Glynn County Courthouse where three men were indicted for murder in his killing. File/Georgia Recorder

The Georgia House Judiciary Committee unanimously advanced legislation Thursday to overhaul the citizen’s arrest law that prosecutors initially used to justify the 2020 killing of Ahmaud Arbery after the Black man was chased down a suburban Brunswick street by three white men.

The bipartisan legislation now heads to the House Rules Committee, which can send the repeal of the Civil War-era statute to the full House. Shop keepers, private investigators and a few others would still be able to hold someone suspected of a crime.

Republican Gov. Brian Kemp introduced the bill last month, saying it is time to get rid of a law that is ripe for abuse and can have deadly consequences. 

The shooting death of the 25-year-old Arbery also led to Democrat and Republican Georgia legislators joining to pass a historic hate crimes law last year. 

This year, Georgia could become one of the few states to withhold arrest powers from ordinary citizens if they suspect someone of committing a crime if police are not around. 

In addition to allowing business owners and security guards to detain shoplifters, House Bill 479 would also allow off-duty police officers to make arrests outside their jurisdiction. 

Georgia’s self-defense laws would remain intact, allowing a homeowner to protect themselves and detain a burglar. 

The problem with Georgia’s citizen’s arrest law is that it emboldens people who don’t have the same training as police officers to engage in an inherently dangerous activity, said Rep. Bert Reeves, a Marietta Republican and one of the governor’s floor leaders.

“There’s nothing that would make me happier than to see Georgia lead on this issue,” he said at Thursday’s committee meeting.

All of the states have adopted citizen’s arrest law “at some point,” Reeves said. “But we’re in a different time now. We have cell phones. We have 911. We have cars. We don’t have a sole sheriff on a horse.”

Prosecutors, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and civil rights organizations also support the proposed end to Georgia’s citizen’s arrest law. And the Georgia Chamber of Commerce has also thrown its weight behind it.

Chamber of commerce lobbyist Cosby Johnson said Arbery’s killing has been especially hard to cope with as a Black Brunswick native who is now running for mayor. But if lawmakers pass the bill, it can help soothe some of the anxiety.

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, after the GBI took over the case.

“House Bill 479 doesn’t provide closure for Amaud’s family,” Johnson said. “In the words of Rev. (Rep.) Al Williams that can only be done by the great burden-bearer and heavy load sharer. But House Bill 479 does say to Georgia that no longer will we allow antiquated laws to be used to justify the heinous act that we saw a mother and a father lose their hearts in an instant.” 

Long-time Gwinnett County District Attorney Danny Porter said during his 40 years as a prosecutor that it didn’t turn out well whenever a person attempted a citizen’s arrest.  

ACLU of Georgia political director Christopher Bruce testifies Thursday about the need to overhaul citizen’s arrest law as GOP Rep. Chuck Efstration, right, and Rep. Bert Reeves, a Marietta Republican, listen in. Stanley Dunlap/Georgia Recorder

Christopher Bruce, political director for the ACLU of Georgia, also commended legislators for their support in getting rid of an antiquated law from 1863 that’s rooted in a racist history, often used to round up slaves and lynch Black people.

“For the constitutional promise of ‘we the people’ to truly mean all people, we must dismantle and revise laws that contribute to systemic racism that are overall harmful and unnecessary,” he said. “HB 479 is a step in the right direction.”

Georgia’s citizen’s arrest bill is also getting attention from legislators in other states like South Carolina and New York, where similar bills are under consideration, said Rep. Carl Gilliard, a Garden City Democrat.

He thanked the bipartisan contingent for supporting groundbreaking changes to criminal justice policy, including Judiciary Chairman Chuck Efstration, a Dacula Republican, for shepherding the hate crimes bill and hosting hearings on the citizen’s arrest law last year.

“This work that you’ve done is stellar,” Gilliard said, “The coalition from the NAACP, to the ACLU, to the Urban League, you’ve done everything right in including the citizens of Georgia and law enforcement.”

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Stanley Dunlap
Stanley Dunlap

Stanley Dunlap has covered government and politics for news outlets in Georgia and Tennessee for the past decade. The Georgia Associated Press Managing Editors named Stanley a finalist for best deadline reporting. The Tennessee Press Association honored him for his reporting on the disappearance of Holly Bobo.