Support grows for changes to citizen’s arrest law, if not outright repeal

    Protesters demanding justice for Ahmaud Arbery and new criminal justice reforms rally on June 4 at the Glynn County Courthouse. Wes Wolfe/Georgia Recorder

    State lawmakers who are reviewing Georgia’s citizen’s arrest law said they could soon reach common ground on whether to repeal or just revise the law. 

    The Civil War-era law has captured the public’s attention since it was cited by a prosecutor as justification for the shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery, a Black jogger who was gunned down after being confronted in a neighborhood near Brunswick. It became a focal point for legislators after a viral video captured Arbery’s killing at the hands of a group of white men.

    Rep. Bert Reeves, a Marietta Republican, said Thursday that he believes committee members are closer to a consensus that would likely strip out parts of the citizen’s arrest law while clarifying exceptions that give security guards and store owners the ability to detain someone who commits a crime.

    “There are a few issues that are very important to me as far as being able to make sure that homeowners or property owners have the right to detain somebody until the authorities arrive and, and obviously, the shopkeepers,” Reeves said. 

    On Thursday, the House Judiciary Non-Civil Committee heard from associations for prosecutors, criminal defense attorneys and sheriffs who said they support changing the law that allows residents to arrest someone they suspect of committing a crime if police are not around. The panel had already heard earlier this month from criminal justice advocates who called existing law confusing and said it was rooted in racism.

    Some lawmakers hoped to push through changes to the law as this year’s legislative session came to a close in June, but ultimately, they ran out of time. The House committee’s work could lead to a proposal for the 2021 legislative session. 

    Terry Norris, executive director of the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association, said it’s vital that residents should still have the right to detain someone if the person is suspected of a crime that threatens a person’s life or property. 

    “I think one thing that we should consider if we go forward with legislation is to make that distinction between detention and arrest,” he said.

    Pete Skandalakis, executive director of the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council of Georgia, said he never handled a citizen’s arrest case in his 32 years as a prosecutor and he believes prosecutors would not have a problem with repealing it.

    As it stands now, the law is too easy for the untrained person to abuse, said Mazie Lynn Causey, legislative liaison for the Georgia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

    “We ought to take notice and admit that expecting our neighbors to wield arrest powers appropriately is unreasonable at best and fatal at worst,” she said.

    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.