Kemp readies overhaul of Georgia’s citizen’s arrest law

Gov. Brian Kemp is promoting an overhaul of Georgia's 150-year-old citizen's arrest law. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Gov. Brian Kemp is promoting an overhaul of Georgia's 150-year-old citizen's arrest law. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Gov. Brian Kemp’s office is preparing to unveil a proposal next week that would overhaul the state’s citizen’s arrest law after it came under harsh scrutiny following the death nearly a year ago of a Black man who was shot and killed near Brunswick.

The governor’s plan would replace the roughly 150-year-old statute with a new version that includes protections for law enforcement officers and private businesses to detain lawbreakers, according to a senior official, while also addressing concerns from critics who say it’s systemically abused to disproportionately target Black Georgians.

The law gained national attention last year after the death of Ahmaud Arbery, who was shot to death while he was 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.

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.”

The governor first promised to rewrite the law during his State of the State address in January, when he called it an “antiquated law that is ripe for abuse and enables sinister, evil motives.”

“We can again send a clear message: Georgia is a state that protects all of its people and fights injustice wherever it is found,” he said.

Since then, his office has consulted with legislative leaders from both parties and advocacy groups to hone the measure.

Supporters of the current version say an overhaul is unwarranted and that it is rarely used successfully as a defense in court. Voters, meanwhile, are split. A recent Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll found 46% of respondents said they support a repeal of the law and 45% said they did not.