A ‘birthday present to Ahmaud,’ Georgia overhauls citizen’s arrest law

Wanda Cooper-Jones (left), mother of Ahmaud Arbery, stands with Gov. Brian Kemp after he signs House Bill 479, which overhauls Georgia's citizen's arrest law at the state Capitol Monday, May 10, 2021.   STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION
Caption
Wanda Cooper-Jones (left), mother of Ahmaud Arbery, stands with Gov. Brian Kemp after he signs House Bill 479, which overhauls Georgia's citizen's arrest law at the state Capitol Monday, May 10, 2021. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

There’s nothing that can bring Ahmaud Arbery back, but his mother said she knows he would be honored to know of the change his life has brought to Georgia.

Wanda Cooper-Jones’ son Arbery — who was Black — was followed by three white men who say they thought he was a burglar, and shot and killed in February 2020. In the 14 months since, state lawmakers have passed two major pieces of legislation that aim to improve the lives of Black Georgians and other residents of color.

And on Monday, the day after Mother’s Day, Cooper-Jones was at the state Capitol when Gov. Brian Kemp invoked her son’s name as he signed legislation that will no longer allow most Georgians to arrest people who they believe have committed a crime. The citizen’s arrest law was initially cited by prosecutors who told police the men who killed Arbery should not be charged.

“Unfortunately, Ahmaud had to lose his life, but the change that has been implemented since we lost him shows my family that he didn’t lose his life in vain,” she said. “I didn’t really think we’d get this type of change within this short time period. I’m shocked, but thankful.”

Wanda Cooper-Jones is surrounded by media after the signing of HB 479, which repeals Georgia's citizen's arrest law at the State Capital Monday, May 10, 2021.  STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION
Caption
Wanda Cooper-Jones is surrounded by media after the signing of HB 479, which repeals Georgia's citizen's arrest law at the State Capital Monday, May 10, 2021. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

With Kemp’s signature, Georgia becomes the first state to remove a citizen’s arrest statute from its books. All 50 states have a version of the law in place. Lawmakers in South Carolina and New York have introduced similar measures.

The citizen’s arrest overhaul is the second piece of criminal justice legislation to become Georgia law since Arbery’s death. Lawmakers passed hate-crimes legislation last June. It increases the penalties for those convicted of committing crimes against people based on characteristics such as their race, sexual orientation or religion.

ExploreAJC Bill Tracker: Which bills have been signed, vetoed by Gov. Kemp

The citizen’s arrest law came under renewed scrutiny last year after it was cited by a prosecutor to justify his decision to not charge three white men involved in Arbery’s death. The men, who have since been arrested and charged with murder, contend they were making a legitimate citizen’s arrest of Arbery on the day of the killing.

In January, Gov. Brian Kemp announced his support for striking the law from the state’s books. Critics say it has been abused to disproportionately target Black Georgians.

“Today we are replacing a Civil War-era law ripe for abuse with language that balances the sacred right to self defense of a person’s property with our shared responsibility to root out injustice and set our state on a better path forward,” Kemp said as he signed House Bill 479 into law with Cooper-Jones by his side and flanked by a bipartisan group of state lawmakers. “Today, in honor of Ahmaud’s memory, we commit to taking this step forward together.”

The law was first enacted in 1863 to allow white Georgians to capture slaves who were fleeing to fight in the Union Army. Later, the law was used through the early 1900s to justify the lynching of Black people without repercussions.

HB 479 would remove “citizen’s arrest” from state law while still allowing employees at businesses, those conducting business on someone else’s property, 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.

Georgians who detain someone they suspect of committing a crime would be required to either contact police enforcement within a “reasonable amount of time” of holding that person or release them.

HB 479 received broad support from lawmakers throughout the legislative process, with only one lawmaker, Danielsville Republican state Sen. Frank Ginn, voting against the bill.

The law gained national attention last year after Arbery, 25, was shot to death in February 2020 while running near Brunswick.

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.

Last month, the three men were also indicted on federal hate-crimes charges. They can not be charged with hate crimes in Georgia because the law did not exist at the time of the shooting.

Since 1863, state law has allowed any Georgian who believed he had witnessed a crime to arrest the suspected offender if the crime “is committed in his presence or within his immediate knowledge.” If the crime was a felony and the person suspected of committing it was trying to flee, Georgians were allowed to arrest that person “upon reasonable and probable grounds of suspicion.”

Cooper-Jones said it was difficult to spend her second Mother’s Day without her son, who also would have been 27 on Saturday. But she noted that last year, two of the three men who are now charged with Arbery’s death were arrested the day before her son’s birthday.

“And I looked at that as a birthday present to Ahmaud,” she said. “I look at the signing of this bill today as also a birthday present to Ahmaud.”

MORE DETAILS

The law still allows employees at businesses, those conducting business on someone else’s property, 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.

Georgians who detain someone they suspect of committing a crime would be required to either contact police enforcement within a “reasonable amount of time” of holding that person or release them.