Georgia Senate approves overhaul of citizen’s arrest, sends back to House

Republican state Sen. Bill Cowsert of Athens, seated, speaks with Republican state Sen. Larry Walker III of Perry during debate Monday on a bill to overhaul Georgia's citizen's arrest law. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Republican state Sen. Bill Cowsert of Athens, seated, speaks with Republican state Sen. Larry Walker III of Perry during debate Monday on a bill to overhaul Georgia's citizen's arrest law. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: BEN@BENGRAY.COM

Credit: BEN@BENGRAY.COM

The Georgia Senate approved legislation that would overhaul a Civil War-era state law that allows Georgians to arrest someone they suspect of committing a crime.

“When citizens try to play police officer, not being trained and not having the full picture, that’s when it becomes a problem,” said state Sen. Bill Cowsert, R-Athens.

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. Gov. Brian Kemp earlier this year announced that overhauling the law was a top priority.

The Senate approved the measure 52-1, with only state Sen. Frank Ginn, a Danielsville Republican, voting in opposition. Senators altered the legislation, so it will now go back to the House for its consideration.

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House Bill 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.

State Sen. Lindsey Tippins, R-Marietta, amended the legislation to also allow those conducting business on someone else’s property to detain someone who is suspected of committing a crime. The amendment was endorsed by several of his Republican colleagues and passed 33-19 on a party-line vote.

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.

State Rep. Bert Reeves, a Marietta Republican who sponsored HB 479 on behalf of Kemp, said he was studying the amendment, but at first glance he didn’t believe it would hurt the bill’s chances of final approval.

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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