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Georgia House panel begins study of state’s citizen’s arrest law

Georgia Rep. Chuck Efstration, the chairman of the House Judiciary Non-Civil Committee, said he plans for the panel to examine whether and how the state should update the state’s citizen’s arrest law. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
Georgia Rep. Chuck Efstration, the chairman of the House Judiciary Non-Civil Committee, said he plans for the panel to examine whether and how the state should update the state’s citizen’s arrest law. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

The first in a series of discussions lawmakers are having on Georgia’s citizen’s arrest law featured strong words between those who believe it should be repealed and those who disagree — setting the stage for what will likely be a contentious debate in coming months.

State legislators are holding virtual hearings to examine the law enacted in the 1800s that allows citizens to arrest people whom they believe to be committing a crime. Opponents of the law say it is has historically been disproportionately used to justify the killings of Black people.

Georgia NAACP President James Woodall pointed to the February killing of Ahmaud Arbery, who is Black, in Glynn County. Three white men, claiming they believed he was a robber, pursued Arbery, and one of them shot him to death. 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 have been charged with murder.

Woodall said the law, amended to its current version in 1863, was put in place shortly after the Emancipation Proclamation to allow white Georgians to capture slaves who were fleeing to fight in the Union Army. After that, Woodall said, the law was used through the early 1900s to justify the lynching of Black people without repercussions.

“Regardless of if this was invoked correctly or not in the first place (regarding Arbery’s death), there is no escaping the legislative intent of why this statute was created in the first place,” Woodall said. “And so to ignore that would be to, literally, be complicit in white supremacy.”

State Rep. Ed Setzler, an Acworth Republican, pushed back on Woodall's depiction of the law's origins.

“Sir, there were 18 things that you said that were reckless and indefensible,” Setzler said. “I encourage you to go to the root of these issues and not make wild claims as you have that, I believe, trivialize the real issues that are at play and would ask you to do better next time.”

The meeting Monday of the House Judiciary Non-Civil Committee comes after Arbery’s death has put focus on the citizen’s arrest law. Several Democratic lawmakers and civil rights activists have called for the state to repeal the statute, as well as making several other changes to Georgia’s criminal justice laws.

Committee Chairman Chuck Efstration, a Dacula Republican, has said he plans for the panel to examine whether and how the state should update its citizen's arrest law. The hearings also come weeks after Arbery's killing prompted Georgia to approve House Bill 426, hate-crimes legislation that Efstration introduced last year.

Gwinnett County District Attorney Danny Porter said unless it’s an instance such as a private security officer detaining a shoplifter or someone protecting him or herself in their home, he believes application of the law by the public “usually turn out badly.”

“This is a concept that comes down to us, literally, from medieval times,” Porter said. “It’s an outmoded concept except in those two areas that I wanted to exclude. … I’m not in favor of citizens arresting one another (but if you eliminate the law completely), there may be some collateral effects.”