Georgia House unanimously passes overhaul of state’s citizen’s arrest law

03/08/2021 —Atlanta, Georgia — Governor House Floor Leader Rep. Bert Reeves (R-Marietta) revives a congratulatory hand shake from  Rep. Al Williams (D-Midway), right, after the House passed HB 479 in the House Chambers during crossover day in the legislative session at the Georgia State Capitol in Atlanta, Monday, March 8, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
03/08/2021 —Atlanta, Georgia — Governor House Floor Leader Rep. Bert Reeves (R-Marietta) revives a congratulatory hand shake from Rep. Al Williams (D-Midway), right, after the House passed HB 479 in the House Chambers during crossover day in the legislative session at the Georgia State Capitol in Atlanta, Monday, March 8, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Invoking the name of a Black Brunswick area man who was shot and killed last year, the Georgia House unanimously voted to overhaul a Civil War-era state law that allows Georgians to arrest someone they suspect of committing a crime.

The citizen’s arrest law came under renewed scrutiny after it was cited by a prosecutor last year to justify not charging three white men involved in the shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery.

The rollback of the law is a top priority of Gov. Brian Kemp, who said the overhaul “strikes a critical balance between protecting the lives and livelihoods of our families, our friends and our neighbors, and preventing rogue vigilantism from threatening the security and God-given potential of all Georgians.”

It passed by a 173-0 vote, an overwhelming show of support that surprised even veteran Capitol observers.

“Ahmaud’s death is not in vain,” the bill’s sponsor, state Rep. Bert Reeves, R-Marietta, said before the vote. “Ahmaud — his life and his legacy — is going to be (an) agent of change. And in this General Assembly, in 2021, every single one of us have the opportunity to take part in Ahmaud’s legacy.”

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House Bill 479 would repeal citizen’s arrest from state law while still allowing employees at businesses, security officers, private investigators and inspectors at truck scales to detain someone they believe has committed a crime. The bill also would allow law enforcement officers to make arrests outside their jurisdictions.

If Georgia passes the bill, it would be the first state to remove a citizen’s arrest statute from its books. All 50 states have a version of the law in place.

The law gained national attention last year after Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man, was shot to death while running near Brunswick fter being chased by three men who claimed they believed he was a burglar. Local prosecutors initially declined to charge the men, citing the citizen’s arrest law.

After video of Arbery’s death became public in May and the GBI began to investigate the case, the citizen’s arrest defense was disregarded and all three men were charged with murder. They have pleaded not guilty.

Several Democratic lawmakers and civil rights activists have called for the state to repeal the statute.

Reeves said passing HB 479 was an opportunity for lawmakers to repeal a law that was amended into its current version in 1863, originally used to allow white Georgians to capture slaves who were fleeing to fight in the Union Army.

Supporters say the citizen’s arrest law has been used to justify racial profiling.

“I know that there were decades of lynchings that happened in Georgia (where) this law was used as justification,” Reeves said.

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State Rep. William Boddie, D-East Point, said Arbery’s death was personal as he recounted his years in college living in South Georgia and going for runs to clear his mind.

“I was a Black man running with a white T-shirt and shorts in a residential neighborhood in Georgia in my 20s,” he said. “I could have been Ahmaud Arbery before Ahmaud Arbery.”

Current state law allows any Georgian who believes he has witnessed a crime to arrest the suspected offender if the crime “is committed in his presence or within his immediate knowledge.” If the crime is a felony and the person suspected of committing it is trying to flee, Georgians are allowed to arrest that person “upon reasonable and probable grounds of suspicion.”

HB 479 now goes to the Senate for its consideration.

MORE DETAILS

THE CURRENT LAW: Georgia’s statute, which hasn’t changed since 1863, allows residents to take law enforcement into their own hands if they have witnessed a crime and the police aren’t around.

THE CONTROVERSY: The law gained national attention in 2020 after prosecutors declined to charge three white men in the death of Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man who was fatally shot near Brunswick. The three said they believed he was a burglar.

THE PROPOSED LAW: House Bill 479, which the Georgia House approved Monday on a vote of 173-0, would provide protections to law enforcement officers and private businesses that detain lawbreakers while addressing critics’ concerns that the old law was abused to disproportionately target Black Georgians. If it passes, Georgia will be the first state to repeal its citizen’s arrest law. All 50 states have such laws.

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