Lawmaker readies legislation to repeal Georgia’s citizen’s arrest law

The Georgia State Capitol as viewed from the James H. “Sloppy” Floyd Building. Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com
The Georgia State Capitol as viewed from the James H. “Sloppy” Floyd Building. Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com

When a Black man in Glynn County was followed by three white men and shot and killed by one of them, a prosecutor cited Georgia’s citizen’s arrest law while discouraging police from making an arrest.

Since then, criminal justice activists have pushed the state’s lawmakers to repeal the more than 150-year-old statute.

Dacula Republican state Rep. Chuck Efstration said, if reelected next month, he plans to file legislation that would get rid of the 1863 law.

His proposal would only allow business and home owners to detain people whom they catch in the act of a crime — and then call law enforcement. Current law allows anyone who witnesses a crime or believes one has been committed to make an arrest and take that person to police.

Efstration also authored Georgia’s hate-crimes legislation that became law earlier this year, after the February killing of Ahmaud Arbery near Brunswick spurred his Republican colleagues in the Senate to action.

“I view repeal of citizen’s arrest as the next step after passage of the historic hate-crimes act this year,” he said. “Having the legal authority for a person who is not trained in law enforcement to arrest that person and take that person before a judge is untenable in our current world.”

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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.”

Earlier this year, three men, claiming they believed he was a burglar, pursued Arbery, and one of them shot him to death. Local prosecutors initially declined to charge the men, 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 have been charged with murder.

Marissa Dodson, a lobbyist with the Southern Center for Human Rights, said she’s unaware of an instance where someone invoked his or her right to conduct a citizen’s arrest and there wasn’t a tragic result.

Dodson said getting Efstration’s proposal approved would help keep everyone safe — the person who believes he or she witnessed a crime and the person accused of committing the crime.

“The law, as it exists now, provides that someone could take physical custody of (a suspected perpetrator’s) body and then transport them either to a judge or to a law enforcement entity,” she said. “Either circumstance is concerning in terms of the risks to both the person who’s conducting the supposed arrest and the person who’s being arrested.”

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A public hearing on the law held this summer previewed what could be a contentious debate of the bill next legislative session.

State Rep. Bert Reeves, a Marietta Republican, said there were instances not included in Efstration’s proposal where detaining a suspect of a crime was necessary. For example, he said he did not want changes to the law to prevent someone who witnesses his or her car being burglarized or stolen from attempting to stop the offender from leaving.

“What we’re trying to do is eliminate vigilantism of this insane scenario that happened in Brunswick and make it so that nobody under the color of the law can make that argument ever again," Reeves said. “But somewhere along the way we’ve got some commonsense (concern) which deals with our ability to defend our property.”

Efstration is part of a coalition of lawmakers, activists and lawyers who agree the law should be amended.

“There seems to be agreement — regardless of political party, whether you’re law enforcement, civil rights, criminal justice organizations — across the board, there’s agreement we need to take action in this area,” he said. “That leads me to believe we can bring a bill in early 2021 to address this issue.”

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