Georgia repeals citizen’s arrest law in Ahmaud Arbery’s name

Gov. Brian Kemp hands a pen he used to sign an overhaul of the state’s citizen’s arrest statute to Ahmaud Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones. The men in jail for Arbery’s death are using the vague law as their defense.

Emma Hurt

About a year after the shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery became national news, and nearly 15 months after he was shot while jogging down a Brunswick street, Georgia has repealed the vague law that is being used to defend the men in jail for his murder.

Republican Gov. Brian Kemp signed the overhaul he championed at the state Capitol today, alongside a bipartisan group of state lawmakers as well as Arbery’s mother Wanda Cooper-Jones and sister, Jasmine Arbery.

“I think the state of Georgia is moving in the right direction by passing this particular bill,” Cooper-Jones said at the Capitol. “Unfortunately, I had to lose my son to get significant change. But again, I’m still thankful.”

“This bill makes Georgia the first state in the country to appeal its citizen’s arrest statute,” Kemp said at the ceremony.

“Today we are replacing a Civil War-era law, ripe for abuse, with language that balances the sacred right to self-defense of a person and property with our shared responsibility to root out injustice and set our state on a better path forward,” he said.

The vague law, which allowed any citizen to “arrest” another if a crime is committed “within his immediate knowledge,” has been replaced with specific language to provide for citizen detainment in very specific circumstances, to include shopkeepers who witness shoplifters and restaurant owners and employees who witness “dine and dash” customers.

The men in jail for Arbery’s death have said they thought Arbery had committed a burglary when they chased him through their neighborhood, though no evidence of that crime has emerged.

This is the second Georgia law to change in a bipartisan manner in the wake of Arbery’s death. The General Assembly passed a stalled hate crimes statute last summer in Arbery’s name.

“Too often we spend time under the Gold Dome arguing over differences,” Kemp said Monday. “But the outpouring of bipartisan support that this bill received, I believe is a testament to the fundamental character of our state.”

“Today, Georgia is doing what is right,” he said.

“Last year, upon the passing of hate crimes legislation, the [Georgia Legislative Black] Caucus made a pledge to end the practice of citizen’s arrest,” said Democratic State Sen. Tonya Anderson, chair of the caucus in a statement. “Today, with the signing of his name, Gov. Kemp has helped us keep that pledge. We are now the first state to repeal citizen’s arrest and I hope not the last.”

“I ask the governor and my fellow legislators to continue pursuing the goal of criminal justice reform,” she said. “There is more work to do and we are prepared to do it, together as one Georgia.”

The bill’s signing comes as state and federal charges against the three men involved in Arbery’s death, Greg and Travis McMichael and their neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan are moving forward.

A federal arraignment on hate crimes and attempted kidnapping charges is set for Tuesday, and hearings in the state murder prosecutions are scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday.

“The family is still focusing on criminal accountability and seeing this case through to a prosecution and appropriate sentencing on both state and state and federal levels,” Cooper-Jones’ attorney Lee Merritt said.

He said the citizen’s arrest law is “created the atmosphere for what happened to Ahmaud” and that “its repeal is evidence of that.”

For a deeper exploration of Ahmaud Arbery’s story, listen to WABE’s podcast, “Buried Truths.” Hosted by journalist, professor, and Pulitzer-prize-winning author Hank Klibanoff, season three of “Buried Truths” explores the Arbery murder and its direct ties to racially motivated murders of the past in Georgia.