Georgia senators prepare for likely law enforcement legislation

State Sen. Bill Cowsert said Georgia lawmakers could take action in 2021 to repeal the state's citizen's arrest law or clarify and strengthen Georgia's ban on police use of "no-knock warrants." (BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM)
State Sen. Bill Cowsert said Georgia lawmakers could take action in 2021 to repeal the state's citizen's arrest law or clarify and strengthen Georgia's ban on police use of "no-knock warrants." (BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM)

A Senate panel tasked with looking at the state’s police practices is not expected to propose any specific changes to state law next year.

Instead, state Sen. Bill Cowsert, an Athens Republican, said he expects individual lawmakers to pursue changes to criminal justice practices — such as repeal of the state’s citizen’s arrest law or enforcement of existing prohibitions against “no-knock warrants.”

“I think a lot of these are very current issues that are in the news and creating quite a bit of concern among citizens,” Cowsert said. “It’s a natural responsibility of the Legislature to address those concerns, and many times that involves legislation. But not always.”

Cowsert proposed the creation of the Senate Law Enforcement Reform Study Committee as part of a package of legislation passed this year that produced the state’s new hate-crimes law.

The law — which strengthens the penalty against crimes targeting specific groups — was passed in response the death of Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man, in Glynn County. He was killed after three white men followed him and one shot him.

The February shooting also increased interest in the state’s more than 150-year-old citizen’s arrest law.

State law allows any Georgian who believes he has witnessed a crime to arrest a suspect in the crime if it “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.”

Mazie Lynn Causey, general counsel for the Georgia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, told senators Tuesday that the citizen’s arrest law is rooted in slavery.

“When Georgia’s law was first codified in 1863, it was a means to capture fleeing slaves,” she said. “The current law ... remains unchanged since 1868.”

State Rep. Chuck Efstration, a Dacula Republican, held hearings over the summer to examine the law and said in October that he planned to file legislation that would repeal the statute.

Cowsert also said he is open to clarifying and strengthening the state’s ban on “no-knock warrants” — which spare law enforcement officers from having to announce themselves when they perform a search warrant.

Pete Skandalakis, executive director of the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council of Georgia, told senators that officers rarely use the warrants, but in instances when they do, they make headlines — such as in the 2006 death of Kathryn Johnston, a 92-year-old Atlanta woman who was killed when police conducted an illegal raid of her home.

Calling it a “tool of tyranny,” attorney Catherine Bernard said a no-knock warrant is “unreasonable and dangerous.”

“Anytime you have government agents breaking into someone’s home, it’s a big deal,” she said.

Current state law does not allow — or acknowledge — no-knock warrants, but police cite case law to obtain them for searches.

“It’s a little troublesome that there’s no provision in Georgia law that really allows those, but they have begun to be used and in many times (with) disastrous consequences,” Cowsert said. “It may be that we either need to specify that under no circumstances will they be permitted or set forth what circumstances that they can be used.”

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