Senate tweaks citizen’s arrest overhaul, moving it toward a final vote

    The Georgia Legislature moved a step closer on Monday to overhaul the citizen's arrest law, with the Senate passing legislation that now heads back to the House. In May 2020, protesters gathered outside the Glynn County Courthouse to demand justice for Ahmaud Arbery and call for an end to Georgia's Civil War-era law initially used to justify his killing. Wes Wolfe /Georgia Recorder

    The Georgia Senate Monday overwhelmingly supported an overhaul of the Civil War-era law cited as justification in last year’s killing of 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery.

    The Senate voted 52-1 in favor of ending the law that gives ordinary residents the ability to arrest someone they suspect of committing a crime

    The legislation now heads back to the House after Senators amended the bill so that any business owner can detain someone suspected of committing a crime at their establishment. The previous version, which passed the House unanimously earlier his month, limited the so-called “shopkeepers exemption” to retail stores and restaurants.

    “What we’re doing is leaving this up to law enforcement to actually make the arrest instead of citizens trying to arrest people and trying to enforce laws that they may not be adequately trained in or even know,” said Sen. Bill Cowsert, an Athens Republican who carried the bill in the Senate. 

    Sen. Lindsey Tippins, a Marietta Republican, said he introduced the amendment Monday so that all business owners have equal protection under the new law.  

    Gov. Brian Kemp said in his address to open the legislative session that repealing the law would be a high priority in this year’s Legislative session, set to end Wednesday. He called it a chance for the state to stand on the right side of history, noting the horrifying consequences of its misuse shown in a viral video of Arbery’s killer gunning him down. 

    Arbery, who was Black, was shot to death after three white men chased him down a suburban Brunswick street.

    Under the bill, Georgia’s self-defense laws would remain intact, allowing a homeowner to protect themselves and detain a burglar. The legislation would also allow private investigators, out-of-jurisdiction police officers and a few others to hold someone suspected of a crime. 

    “We have another series of code sections that govern our conduct that lets you know when you can use deadly force to protect yourself, to protect your house and to stop somebody else from being hurt,” Cowsert said during debate in the Senate.

    The proposal to end Georgia’s citizen’s arrest law is also supported by the state prosecutors and defense attorneys associations, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, numerous civil rights organizations, and the Georgia Chamber of Commerce. 

    The push to overhaul the citizen’s arrest law follows passage of a hate crimes law last year in the wake of Arbery’s death, which 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 murdering Arbery after the Georgia Bureau of Investigation took over the case from local prosecutors who declined to prosecute citing Georgia’s citizen’s arrest law.

    The law, which dates back to 1864, is rooted in a racist history, often used as reasoning in the lynchings of Black people. 

    Shortly after the Senate’s vote on Monday, Georgia NAACP President James Woodall noted how close the state is to sending a powerful message to the rest of the nation, calling it a “monumental moment for the movement.”

    Stanley Dunlap
    Stanley Dunlap has covered government and politics for news outlets in Georgia and Tennessee for the past decade. At The (Macon) Telegraph he told readers about Macon-Bibb County’s challenges implementing its recent consolidation, with a focus on ways the state Legislature determines the fate of local communities. He used open records requests to break a story of a $400 million pension sweetheart deal a county manager steered to a friendly consultant. The Georgia Associated Press Managing Editors named Stanley a finalist for best deadline reporting for his story on the death of Gregg Allman and best beat reporting for explanatory articles on the 2018 Macon-Bibb County budget deliberations. The Tennessee Press Association honored him for his reporting on the disappearance of Holly Bobo, which became a sensational murder case that generated national headlines.