Overhaul of citizen’s arrest law heads to Georgia governor’s desk

210331-Atlanta-Rep. Bert Reeves (R-Marietta) listens to a question about a bill to repeal citizens arrest during the final day of the 2021 Legislative session Wednesday, March 31, 2021. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Caption
210331-Atlanta-Rep. Bert Reeves (R-Marietta) listens to a question about a bill to repeal citizens arrest during the final day of the 2021 Legislative session Wednesday, March 31, 2021. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

Georgia is on track to become the first state to repeal a Civil War-era law that allows most residents to arrest someone they suspect of committing a crime.

The House voted 169-0 on Wednesday to send House Bill 479 to Gov. Brian Kemp’s desk. The Senate voted 51-1 to approve the measure earlier this week.

The citizen’s arrest law came under renewed scrutiny last year after it was cited by a prosecutor to justify not charging three white men involved in the shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man.

Kemp announced in January that it was one of his top priorities to overhaul the law, which has been on the books since 1863 to allow white Georgians to capture slaves who were fleeing to fight in the Union Army. Later, the law was used through the early 1900s to justify the lynching of Black people without repercussions.

“Our overhaul of the Georgia’s citizen’s arrest statute strikes a critical balance by allowing Georgians to protect themselves and their families, while also repealing Civil War-era language in our laws that is ripe for abuse,” Kemp said. “I look forward to signing it into law as we continue to send a clear message that the Peach State will not tolerate sinister acts of vigilantism in our communities.”

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HB 479 would repeal citizen’s arrest from state law while still allowing employees at businesses, those conducting business on someone else’s property, 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.

Enactment of the law would make Georgia the first state to remove a citizen’s arrest statute from its books. All 50 states have a version of the law in place. Lawmakers in South Carolina and New York have introduced similar measures.

HB 479 had broad support from lawmakers throughout the legislative process, with only one lawmaker, Danielsville Republican state Sen. Frank Ginn, voting against the bill.

While debating the bill on Monday, Ginn said he didn’t feel comfortable supporting a measure that wouldn’t allow him to detain someone he saw stealing property from his neighbor’s home. Under the state’s self-defense laws, bystanders can only intervene if the crime being witnessed is a forcible felony or to defend someone else from receiving bodily harm.

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The law gained national attention last year after Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man, was shot to death while running near Brunswick after being chased by three men who claimed they believed he was a burglar. 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 were charged with murder. They have pleaded not guilty.

Civil rights activists and several Democratic leaders worked with Kemp and other lawmakers to repeal the statute.

“This is a monumental moment in Georgia history to repeal this antiquated citizen’s arrest law,” said Georgia NAACP President James Woodall.

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.”

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