By Maya T. Prabhu
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
ATLANTA — Maintaining momentum built last year with the passage of hate-crimes legislation, Gov. Brian Kemp on Tuesday unveiled a proposal that would overhaul a Civil War-era law that allows 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 police say were involved in the shooting death of a Black man near Brunswick.
At a press conference Tuesday, Kemp rolled out House Bill 479, which would still allow employees at businesses, security officers, private investigators and inspectors at truck scales to detain someone they believe has committed a crime. The bill, being shepherded through the legislative process by Marietta Republican state Rep. Bert Reeves, would also allow off-duty police officers to make arrests when they are not in their jurisdictions.
“This bill repeals the current Civil War-era statute to prevent the terrible consequences of a vague and outdated law,” Kemp said, flanked by a bipartisan group of state House and Senate members, Attorney General Chris Carr and GBI Director Vic Reynolds.
The governor’s plan would replace the roughly 150-year-old statute with a version that includes protections for law enforcement officers and private businesses that detain lawbreakers, Kemp officials said, while also addressing concerns from critics who say it has been systemically abused to disproportionately target Black Georgians.
Kemp’s intent is to repeal citizen’s arrest and tailor the new law in a way that would eliminate legal loopholes that could be used to justify vigilantism, his office said.
Marissa Dodson, a lobbyist with the Southern Center for Human Rights, lauded the proposal. She and her organization have worked with lawmakers since at least last summer to repeal the law.
“It is unnecessary, dangerous and has had a central role in perpetuating anti-Black vigilante violence both recently and historically,” she 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.
“The horrific killing of Ahmaud Arbery shook a Georgia community to its very core,” Kemp said. “Ahmaud was a victim of a vigilante style of violence that has no place in Georgia, and some tried to justify the action of his killers by claiming they had the protection of an antiquated law that is ripe for abuse.”
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.
Video of Arbery’s death also spurred lawmakers to pass hate-crimes legislation last year after nearly 20 years of attempts to put a law on the books. The law increases the punishment for people who commit crimes against someone based on characteristics such as race, sexual orientation and religion.
Georgia Democrats, the state NAACP and other groups intensified their demands for the repeal of citizen’s arrest laws, as well as a rollback of “stand your ground” rules, shortly after the graphic video of Arbery’s death emerged. Under “stand your ground” laws, someone can say they acted in self-defense and had no duty to retreat during a confrontation with someone else.
“(The citizen’s arrest law) is outdated, antiquated and it leads to Ahmaud Arberys,” said Chris Stewart, an attorney representing Arbery’s mother, Wanda Jones.
State Rep. Calvin Smyre, a Columbus Democrat who is a co-sponsor of HB 479, said by overhauling citizen’s arrest, lawmakers will take the necessary step after passing hate-crimes legislation to make good on a promise to Arbery’s family that meaningful change would come from his death.
“I can honestly tell you that had not it been for Ahmaud Arbery’s killing, I don’t think I’d be sitting here talking to you today about citizen’s arrest,” Smyre said. “And sometimes when you’re in a reflective mode, you look back and you say, ‘How did we not do this earlier?’ And to me, you just have to continue.”
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 Kemp’s proposal, Georgians who detain someone they suspect of committing a crime would be required to either contact police enforcement within an hour of holding that person or release them.
“There’s definitely a balance here,” said Senate Judiciary Chairman Brian Strickland, a McDonough Republican. If the legislation is approved by the House, it will likely be vetted by his committee. “What we don’t need is all of us playing police in the streets. This may have worked in the 1800s, but it’s definitely not something you want to see today.”
Supporters of the current version of the law say an overhaul is unwarranted and that it is rarely used successfully as a defense in court so there’s no need to change it. Opponents, however, often counter that its rare use makes it unnecessary and should be eliminated.
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.
Georgia has had statutes on the books since 1863 that allow residents to take law enforcement into their own hands if they have witnessed a crime and the police aren’t around. The idea dates to the 13th century.
Critics say the laws are easily abused and no longer necessary with widespread law enforcement protection and 911 service.
An overhaul of the law almost gained traction last year. In the closing days of last year’s pandemic-delayed legislative session, Republican leaders quietly worked with Democrats to hash out a compromise that would have scaled back or repealed the citizen’s arrest statute. But the deal unraveled and legislative leaders vowed to go back to the drawing board.
This year’s legislative session opened with a promise by Kemp to revamp the statute during his State of the State address, when he called it an “antiquated law that is ripe for abuse and enables sinister, evil motives.”
Since then, his office has consulted with legislative leaders from both parties and advocacy groups to hone the measure.
Georgia NAACP President James Woodall noted that Kemp unveiled the legislation near the one-year anniversary of the death of Arbery, who was killed Feb. 23, 2020.
“The newly introduced bill will have to go through the entire legislative process,” he said, “but we have full confidence that Gov. Kemp and legislators in both chambers and both parties will be able to make this legislation into law during this session.”
Staff writer Christian Boone contributed to this article.
Georgia has had statutes since 1863 that allow residents to take law enforcement into their own hands if they have witnessed a crime and the police aren’t around. The law gained national attention last year after local prosecutors declined to charge three white men in the death of Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man who was fatally shot after they chased him, saying they believed he was a burglar.
Current state law allows any Georgian who believes he has witnessed a crime to arrest the suspect if the crime “is committed in his presence or within his immediate knowledge.”
Gov. Brian Kemp’s proposal would still allow employees at businesses, security officers, private investigators and inspectors at truck scales to detain someone they believe has committed a crime. It also would allow off-duty police officers to make arrests when they are not in their jurisdictions.
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