Georgia state lawmakers began Monday a formal review of the state’s citizen’s arrest law and whether it’s still needed.
The law allows citizens to arrest someone if a crime is committed in their presence or with their immediate knowledge and has been thrust into the spotlight after being used to justify the killing of Ahmaud Arbery.
A south Georgia prosecutor argued that the men in jail for Arbery’s murder were trying to conduct a citizen’s arrest and, therefore, within the law when Arbery died. Gregory and Travis McMichael and William Bryan chased and shot Arbery for suspected burglary after seeing him leave a construction site in suburban Brunswick in February.
A group of Democratic state lawmakers began advocating for the repeal of the statute in May. Republican State Representative Chuck Efstration is leading the Georgia House Judiciary Committee’s work on citizen’s arrest with the blessing of Republican House Speaker David Ralston.
Marissa Dodson, the public policy director at the Southern Center for Human Rights, testified the law should be repealed because arrests are better made by trained law enforcement. She called the statute “archaic,” and said it dates back to an era when law enforcement resources “were scarce, and response times could take days.”
Plus, the law has a dark racial history, she said: “It was also established during one of the worst periods of racial tension in our history and has remained unchanged for nearly 100 years.”
“In the early 20th century it was used to justify the lynching of black people at the hands of whites,” she said, drawing a parallel up to Arbery’s death in February.
Gwinnett District Attorney Danny Porter told lawmakers that in his experience, many citizen’s arrest cases go wrong: “They usually turn out badly. They usually are with someone’s misinterpretation of the law,” he said.
“I’ve even seen them when they’ve attempted citizen’s arrest for noise violations which is, of course, not permitted. It has to be a violation of state law.”
Porter made a distinction between those problematic cases and shoplifting arrests and cases in which homeowners defend their own homes.
“Citizen’s arrest in this age of increased police forces is really kind of an outmoded concept,” he said, except in the case of shop owners and homeowners defending their property. “I’m personally not in favor of citizens arresting one another, but I am careful that there may be some collateral effects.”
“Repealing citizen’s arrest laws have nothing to do with the state’s self-defense laws and repealing it would have no impact,” Dodson argued, saying people would still have a legal avenue to defend themselves and their homes.
Lawmakers plan to hold more hearings this summer, in order to come up with a legislative reform plan in advance of their January session.
The defendants in the Arbery case are set to appear in Glynn County Court on Friday for their arraignment.