Georgia’s citizen’s arrest law can be traced back to the 13th century

In the third episode of the 8th season of "Breakdown," Bill Rankin and Asia Simone Burns take a close look at Georgia's citizen arrest law. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
In the third episode of the 8th season of "Breakdown," Bill Rankin and Asia Simone Burns take a close look at Georgia's citizen arrest law. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

The origin of Georgia’s citizen’s arrest law that Gov. Brian Kemp wants to overhaul can be traced back to 13th century England.

At that time, King Edward I apparently didn’t think the watchmen, constables and sheriffs under his rule were sufficient to subdue criminal behavior across the realm.

In 1285, King Edward signed the Statute of Winchester. It said that if citizens witnessed a crime, they had to take up a “hue and cry” to let people know an alleged wrongdoer was trying to escape. Fellow citizens were then expected to join in the chase and run down and detain the suspected criminal until the law arrived.

The use of the statute was particularly effective in walled-in English towns. Upon hearing a hue and cry, gatekeepers would close in the town, penning in the suspected wrongdoer.

The antiquated citizen’s arrest law eventually traveled across the Atlantic Ocean to the colonies, including Georgia. It is now on the books in some shape or form in more than 40 states.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s podcast, Breakdown, explored the history of Georgia’s law in the third episode of its current season, which focuses on the Feb. 23, 2020, killing of Ahmaud Arbery just outside of Brunswick.

Long before Greg and Travis McMichael claimed they were entitled to chase down Arbery under Georgia’s citizen’s arrest law, the statute was extremely controversial.

“Lynchings of African-American men and women here in Georgia by white mobs making ‘citizen’s arrests’ have a particularly gruesome history,” the Rev. James Woodall, state president of the Georgia NAACP, told a legislative hearing last year.

This includes the lynching of four Blacks in Elberton in January 1912 after they were detained under the citizen’s arrest law, Woodall said. They were suspected of killing a white planter who was alleged to be sexually assaulting Black girls and women. The law was also used in July 1946 against two Black couples who were dragged from their cars on Moore’s Ford bridge in Walton County and shot dozens of times by white men, Woodall said.

January 14, 2021 Atlanta - Portrait of Rev. James Woodall, State President of Georgia NAACP, at the Georgia State Capitol building on Thursday, January 14, 2021. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
January 14, 2021 Atlanta - Portrait of Rev. James Woodall, State President of Georgia NAACP, at the Georgia State Capitol building on Thursday, January 14, 2021. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

“No one was ever charged with their murders,” Woodall noted. “Although not always explicitly invoked, Georgia citizen’s arrest statutes supported, or allowed, for many of these lynchings.”

Here is Georgia’s citizen’s arrest law verbatim: “A private person may arrest an offender if the offense is committed in his presence or within his immediate knowledge. If the offense is a felony and the offender is escaping or attempting to escape, a private person may arrest him upon reasonable and probable grounds of suspicion.”

Former Gwinnett County District Attorney Danny Porter is among those who believe Georgia’s citizen’s arrest law needs to be updated.

“Citizen’s arrest in this age of increased police forces is really kind of an outmoded concept,” he said. “They remind me of the Andy of Mayberry episode where Gomer Pyle was going around trying to make citizen’s arrests and they usually turn out badly. They usually are with someone’s misinterpretation of the law.”

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