AJC poll: Georgians split on repeal of citizen’s arrest law

Gov. Brian Kemp has called for rewriting the state's 150-year-old citizen's arrest law. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Gov. Brian Kemp has called for rewriting the state's 150-year-old citizen's arrest law. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Georgia voters are split on the state’s citizen’s arrest law, according to a poll conducted by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

When asked whether voters thought lawmakers should abolish the state’s law that allows Georgians to detain and transport to police someone they believe to have committed a crime, the results were nearly even — 46% said they support repeal and 45% said they did not.

The AJC poll involved 858 registered Georgia voters and was conducted Jan. 17-28 by the University of Georgia’s School of Public and International Affairs. The margin of error is 4.2 percentage points.

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When contacted by the AJC, several voters mirrored that nearly even split. At first, some who were contacted said they supported repealing the law, but by the end of the conversation they said there were some instances where citizen’s arrest could be useful. Others initially said the law should remain as is, but during the discussion they said they weren’t sure just anyone should be able to make an arrest.

The 150-year-old statute is a top priority of both Gov. Brian Kemp and social justice advocates after it came under scrutiny following the death nearly a year ago of Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man who was shot and killed near Brunswick.

Bogart resident Thomas Fiorito, a 66-year-old retiree, said it was difficult to decide how he felt about citizen’s arrest.

“It’s a tough one. I really don’t think that the average citizen is equipped to arrest or detain anybody — of course there’s special circumstances,” he said. “If I’m an average citizen and I see someone trying to abduct a child or a woman, I feel it’s my duty to try and step in and stop it.”

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Kemp said an overhaul, not a repeal, of the law is one of his top priorities this legislative session. It is unlikely that the governor’s office will pursue altering citizen’s arrest without ensuring that shopkeepers or property owners could still be allowed to stop someone who is caught committing a crime.

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.”

Last year, three men, claiming they believed he was a burglar, 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.

Cartersville resident Steve Bradley, a former Bartow County administrator and a former assistant district attorney, said in his few years as a prosecutor, he never saw the citizen’s arrest law used in court.

“I’ve never known that law to be invoked,” said Bradley, now 71 and retired. “So I would be in favor of revoking that. I see no practical purpose for it.”

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Calling Arbery the victim of “a vigilante style of violence,” Kemp said his administration plans to introduce a rewrite of an “antiquated law that is ripe for abuse and enables sinister, evil motives” — an effort backed by a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers and criminal justice advocates.

After leading a panel to study the state’s citizen’s arrest law last summer, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Efstration said he’s shared legislation he drafted that would only allow business and home owners to detain people whom they catch in the act of a crime — and then call law enforcement.

“The (Kemp) administration’s support of the issue has led me to give them what I was working on, and we’ll see what their proposal will be,” the Dacula Republican said.

AJC poll

The poll was conducted Jan.17-28 for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution by the University of Georgia’s School of Public and International Affairs. It questioned 858 registered voters and has a margin of error of 4.2 percentage points.

Georgia has a citizen’s arrest law that allows residents, in the absence of law enforcement, to detain someone if they have witnessed a crime. Do you support or oppose eliminating this law?

  • Support eliminating law — 46%
  • Oppose eliminating law — 45%
  • Don’t know; refused to answer — 9%

Poll information: The survey was administered by the School of Public and International Affairs Survey Research Center at the University of Georgia. The AJC-SPIA Poll was conducted Jan. 17-28, and it included a total of 858 registered voters in Georgia. The calculated margin of error for the total sample is +/-4.2 points at the 95% confidence level.

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