Georgia’s citizen’s arrest overhaul clears first hurdle

Gov. Brian Kemp used his State of the State address to propose an overhaul of the state's Civil War-era citizen's arrest statue, calling it an “antiquated law that is ripe for abuse and enables sinister, evil motives.” Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”
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Gov. Brian Kemp used his State of the State address to propose an overhaul of the state's Civil War-era citizen's arrest statue, calling it an “antiquated law that is ripe for abuse and enables sinister, evil motives.” Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

A Georgia House panel took the first step toward overhauling a Civil War-era statute Thursday by unanimously passing a bill that would no longer allow most 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 the white men involved in the shooting death of a Black man near Brunswick. In his State of the State address in January, Gov. Brian Kemp announced he would work to overhaul the statute, saying it was an “antiquated law that is ripe for abuse and enables sinister, evil motives.”

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.

House Judiciary Chairman Chuck Efstration said it was important that Georgia be the first state in the country to remove citizen’s arrest from the state’s law.

“Frankly, I was surprised to learn there was such a law,” the Dacula Republican said.

The law gained national attention last year after the death of Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man who was shot to death 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.

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.

Marissa Dodson, a lobbyist with the Southern Center for Human Rights, said having a citizen’s arrest law on the books has allowed the average Georgian — who has no law enforcement training — to “play cop.”

“After slavery was formally abolished, the citizen’s arrest law was used as a justification for white lynch mobs committing acts of violence against Black people in our state,” Dodson said. “This historical pattern, citizen’s arrest being used to excuse the killing of Black people, has persisted into the 21st century with the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery and Kenneth Herring in 2019.”

Herring was shot and killed in Clayton County by a white woman who is accused of following him after he left the scene of a crash in which he was involved, blocking him with her car and ordering him to get out of his car before police say she shot him in the abdomen.

State Rep. Bert Reeves, a Marietta Republican, sponsor of HB 479, said he wanted to be clear that nothing in Kemp’s proposal would take away a person’s right to defend himself or herself.

“Citizen’s arrest is a very different concept than the concept of self-defense,” he said. “Citizens arrest is an offensive act.”

Cosby Johnson, a lobbyist with the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, said HB 479 would rid the state of antiquated, laws that protect an atmosphere of hate, racism and violence.

“It is this unmitigated disassociation from the notion that we are all one family sewn together by a singular existence that allows someone to follow, track and murder a child of God,” Johnson said. “However, it is even more egregious that a justice system saw fit to excuse such malice with not only an antiquated law but also with a racially ossified mindset.”

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.”

In a letter, the Georgia Sheriff’s Association said it opposed expanding the powers of police officers past their jurisdictions because it could create confusion between law enforcement officers. It was the only organization to publicly oppose the measure.