Capitol Recap: Overhaul in works for Georgia’s citizen’s arrest law

Gov. Brian Kemp, presents legislation to overhaul Georgia’s citizen's arrest statute during a press conference at the Capitol. Standing with him is Democratic state Rep. Calvin Smyre, a co-sponsor of the proposal, House Bill 479. Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”
Gov. Brian Kemp, presents legislation to overhaul Georgia’s citizen's arrest statute during a press conference at the Capitol. Standing with him is Democratic state Rep. Calvin Smyre, a co-sponsor of the proposal, House Bill 479. Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Kemp seeks restraints on Civil War-era statute

Gov. Brian Kemp this past week presented his plan to overhaul Georgia’s Civil War-era citizen’s arrest statute, which he called “an antiquated law that is ripe for abuse.”

Kemp’s proposal, House Bill 479, follows up on last year’s push, after 20 years of effort, to pass hate-crimes legislation. That law increases the punishment for people who commit crimes against someone based on characteristics such as race, sexual orientation and religion.

Each is rooted in the death last year of Ahmaud Arbery.

Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man, was fatally shot almost a year ago near Brunswick after being chased by three men who claimed they believed he was a burglar. Local prosecutors initially declined to charge the men, who are white, citing the citizen’s arrest law.

It was only months later, after a video of the killing surfaced and the GBI opened an investigation, that the men were charged with murder. They have pleaded not guilty.

Current state law allows any Georgian who believes he has witnessed a crime to arrest the suspect if the crime “is committed in his presence or within his immediate knowledge.”

Kemp’s proposal would still allow employees at businesses, security officers, private investigators and inspectors at truck scales to detain someone they believe has committed a crime. It also would allow off-duty police officers to make arrests when they are not in their jurisdictions.

Voters appear divided on citizen’s arrest. A recent Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll found 46% of respondents said they support a repeal of the law, and 45% said they did not.

But bipartisan support has lined up behind HB 479.

It won applause from Marissa Dodson, public policy director of the Southern Center for Human Rights. She and her organization have worked with lawmakers since at least last summer to repeal the law that she said “has had a central role in perpetuating anti-Black vigilante violence both recently and historically.”

Senate Judiciary Chairman Brian Strickland, a McDonough Republican, was also supportive.

“What we don’t need is all of us playing police in the streets,” he said. “This may have worked in the 1800s, but it’s definitely not something you want to see today.”

A Fulton County election worker starts counting and scanning ballots in November. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)
A Fulton County election worker starts counting and scanning ballots in November. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Changes to absentee voting advance

Georgia is one of 34 states that allow any qualified voter to vote absentee without having to provide an excuse, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

That would change under Senate Bill 71, which would limit the use of absentee ballots to people who are over 75, have a physical disability or are out of town, putting an end to no-excuse mail-in voting that a Republican-dominated General Assembly put in place in 2005.

SB 71 cleared a Senate subcommittee this past week on a 3-2 party-line vote.

Another measure that would significantly alter absentee voting in the state is Senate Bill 67, which has moved further along in the process by winning the endorsement of the Senate Ethics Committee on another party-line vote of 7-4.

It would require voters to submit a photocopy of their ID, a driver’s license number or other state ID number when requesting an absentee ballot.

SB 67 and SB 71 are among a series of bills that Republican state senators have filed following numerous allegations concerning irregularities in the state’s presidential election, even though machine recounts, a manual audit of every ballot, and audits of both voting machines and absentee ballot envelope signatures all validated the results of the contest. Republicans senators did not complain about the results of House and Senate elections, where the GOP retained a solid majority.

Absentee ballots were a popular option for Georgia voters in November’s election. Of the 5 million people who voted, 1.3 million cast absentee ballots.

Democrats said SB 67 would create obstacles for voters seeking to cast absentee ballots, especially those who lack a driver’s license or state ID card. They also have raised concerns about the possibility of identity theft if voters have to send personal information through the mail with their absentee ballot applications.

But state Sen. Larry Walker, a Republican from Perry, said that safeguarding the vote is more important than voter privacy.

“We don’t want to put obstacles in the way of legitimate people voting, but I think it’s so important that we have security in the vote,” said Walker, the bill’s sponsor. “There are instances in the small minority of the people that they’re going to have to make a little effort if they do not have a government-issued ID to provide some other form of identification.”

Georgia voters already must submit a driver’s license number when requesting an absentee ballot online, but there’s no ID requirement for paper absentee ballot application forms. In-person voters must show photo ID.

Democrats also opposed SB 71, saying it would stop people from voting from home if they’re worried about their health, as many did in November because of the coronavirus pandemic now responsible for the death of more than 14,000 Georgians.

But Republican Sen. Jeff Mullis of Chickamauga, the sponsor of SB 71, said voters should have to provide a reason to vote outside a polling place, as they did before the state made absentee voting available to everyone 16 years ago.

“I wouldn’t call it going backward,” Mullis said. “I would call it going back to a more manageable, more respectable form of voting absentee.”

Legislators finish one big job on the to-do list

The General Assembly reached a key milestone of the legislative session this past week when Gov. Brian Kemp signed the midyear budget.

The budget, which runs through June 30, increases state spending by $654 million. It backfills 60% of the spending reductions that lawmakers approved last year, when they cut 10% because of fears that state revenue would plummet due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

It also provides $1,000 bonuses to most state employees — a thank-you gift of sorts recognizing their hard work during the pandemic — and gives 10% raises to guards in the Department of Corrections and the Department of Juvenile Justice.

Passing the budget gives lawmakers a chance to exhale, having completed work on one of the only two things the General Assembly is required to accomplish during any legislative session — the other is to finish the budget for the next fiscal year that begins July 1.

Getting the midyear budget done eases any pressure lawmakers felt to complete work on something significant before — if it becomes necessary — they have to suspend the session again, as they did during last year’s session before returning almost three months later in June.

Following a peaceful march to the Georgia Capitol in the response to the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, protesters returned to the area around the Centennial Olympic Park and CNN Center in downtown Atlanta where some confronted police.
Following a peaceful march to the Georgia Capitol in the response to the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, protesters returned to the area around the Centennial Olympic Park and CNN Center in downtown Atlanta where some confronted police.

Credit: Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal Constitution

Bill would up penalties for crimes committed during protests

Widespread unrest — first in Atlanta and other parts of the country during the summer in response to high-profile police killings, then capped by the riot at the U.S. Capitol — has produced legislation to increase the punishment of those found guilty of committing crimes during a protest.

Republican state Sen. Randy Robertson of Cataula cited all those incidents as the reason he filed Senate Bill 171, which would increase the penalties for crimes such as blocking a highway, assaulting someone or damaging property when gathered in groups of two or more.

“If you go back and look at the unrest that’s taken place starting this past summer, moving all the way up to what we witnessed this past January, you see that these unregulated, disorganized, chaotic events lead to injury, death and massive amounts of property damage,” Robertson said.

Robertson’s proposal produced some protest of its own.

“There are significant state and federal constitutional issues with the bill in terms of its impact on freedom of assembly and speech,” said Senate Special Judiciary Chairwoman Jen Jordan, an Atlanta Democrat.

Protests in Atlanta lasted for weeks last summer, with some participants damaging property throughout the downtown area — including at the state Capitol — and others throwing objects at police.

SB 171 would make blocking a highway during an “unlawful assembly” a felony, carrying a punishment of one to five years in prison and/or a fine of $1,000 to $5,000. Any groups of seven or more who damage property or are violent against another person also would be charged with a felony.

Also, anyone who commits a crime while gathered in a group could be charged with racketeering.

The bill also takes aim at local government agencies that instruct their law enforcement officers not to interact with protesters, saying they could be sued by anyone who was injured or whose property was damaged.

State funding could also be withheld from any Georgia municipality that cuts its law enforcement funding by more than 30%.

Plan aims to boost coverage for uninsured kids

The state could automatically enroll tens of thousands of children in Georgia receiving food stamps in Medicaid, the health care program for the poor and disabled, under a bill now moving through the House.

In Georgia, about 7% of children are uninsured, a higher percentage than the national average. A majority of kids eligible for food stamps are also eligible for Medicaid because of their family income level, but many are not enrolled in the government health program.

House Bill 163, which has already cleared the House Health and Human Services Committee, would direct the state Department of Community Health to submit the new enrollment mechanism to federal officials for approval.

The policy is already in place in other states — including Alabama, Louisiana and South Carolina — and has increased coverage of uninsured children, said the bill’s sponsor, House Health and Human Services Chairwoman Sharon Cooper, R-Marietta.

Tom Rawlings, the head of the state’s Division of Family and Children Services, said the plan could save the state money on processing separate applications.

Fans of the plan include children’s advocacy groups, medical provider groups and state officials, who say such a move could lead to up to 70,000 uninsured children in Georgia getting health coverage.

Callan Wells of the Georgia Early Education Alliance for Ready Students said Alabama has seen its uninsured rate fall to just 3.5%.

“Surely we can do better” than that in Georgia, Cooper said.

House backs parental leave for state workers

The House voted 155-2 to give three weeks of paid parental leave to state employees and teachers.

The legislation, House Bill 146, would cover about 423,000 parents, both mothers and fathers, following the birth, adoption or foster placement of a child.

Clearing the House was the easy part. It approved a similar measure last year that stalled in the Senate during the closing moments of the legislative session.

The legislation would have no impact on private companies, which will be able to continue setting their own parental leave policies.

Georgians pay a $1 fee for each replacement tire they buy. When the fee was created, it was proposed as a way to fund the cleanup of tire dumps like this one in Atlanta. But the money has often been diverted to the state's general fund to pay for things such as schools, public health care and local projects. PHIL SKINNER
Georgians pay a $1 fee for each replacement tire they buy. When the fee was created, it was proposed as a way to fund the cleanup of tire dumps like this one in Atlanta. But the money has often been diverted to the state's general fund to pay for things such as schools, public health care and local projects. PHIL SKINNER

Stat of the week: About $150 million diverted to other purposes

The Association County Commissioners of Georgia reports that since 2009, about $150 million in fee money meant for environmental cleanup has been diverted to pay for other expenses, including schools, marketing programs, public health care and local projects.

The fees include the $1 Georgians pay for each replacement tire they buy. That levy was sold as a way to fund the cleanup of tire dumps, but governors and lawmakers have long redirected such money to the general fund.

That’s supposed to change now that 82% of voters in the fall approved the “truth-in-fees” or “anti-bait-and-switch” amendment to the state constitution to ensure the money goes where lawmakers say it would.

Gov. Brian Kemp this past week proposed legislation to implement the amendment.

Environmental fund fees aren’t the only ones that have been diverted. For instance, money for years was also redirected from funds meant to pay for driver education and law enforcement training.

The amendment does allow the governor and General Assembly to divert money if a fiscal emergency is declared during a severe recession.

In Other News