Citizen’s arrest overhaul clears another hurdle, gets Georgia Senate panel approval

State Rep. Bert Reeves, R-Marietta, is the sponsor of House Bill 479. During a hearing Wednesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee, he stressed how important the legislation was to Gov. Brian Kemp. “Gov. Kemp felt compelled as leader of this state to send a message on this issue and explain that this is not a law we’re going to have (and that) we’re not going to honor in Georgia anymore,” Reeves said. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

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

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State Rep. Bert Reeves, R-Marietta, is the sponsor of House Bill 479. During a hearing Wednesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee, he stressed how important the legislation was to Gov. Brian Kemp. “Gov. Kemp felt compelled as leader of this state to send a message on this issue and explain that this is not a law we’re going to have (and that) we’re not going to honor in Georgia anymore,” Reeves said. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

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

A Georgia Senate panel on Wednesday approved legislation that would 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 Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously passed House Bill 479.

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.”

“Gov. Kemp felt compelled as leader of this state to send a message on this issue and explain that this is not a law we’re going to have (and that) we’re not going to honor in Georgia anymore,” said state Rep. Bert Reeves, a Marietta Republican who sponsored the legislation.

HB 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.

Passage of the bill would make Georgia the first state to remove a citizen’s arrest statute from its books. All 50 states have a version of the law in place.

Atlanta attorney Ed Stone, a former police officer, asked senators to vote against the bill. He shared an example from his time in law enforcement when a man pushed an elderly woman down. By the time Stone arrived several men were standing nearby but the person who’d assaulted her was gone.

“If you pass House Bill 479, that will be the only acceptable course of conduct — to allow the person to escape and hope the police get there (in time),” he said.

Reeves pushed back on Stone’s claim, saying there are several state laws that allow witnesses to intervene when witnessing a crime in action.

The law gained national attention last year after Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man, was shot to death while running near Brunswick after 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.

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.”

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