Georgia Legislature Repeals Civil War-Era Citizen’s Arrest Law

The statute came under scrutiny following the shooting death of Black jogger Ahmaud Arbery last year.

The Georgia Capitol Building. (Credit: DXR – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=50257863)

ATLANTA (CN) — The Georgia House voted unanimously Wednesday to repeal a Civil War-era citizen’s arrest law which allowed most citizens to arrest someone they suspected of having committed a crime.

House Bill 479 repeals a law originally passed in 1863 that has allowed private citizens to make arrests if a crime is committed in their presence “or within their immediate knowledge,” or if the arrestor had “reasonable” grounds to suspect a person had committed a felony offense.

The law was originally intended to allow white Georgians to recapture slaves. The law was often used during the lynching era to justify mob violence against Black people.

Under the new law, bystanders or witnesses to a potential crime would not have the right to detain people. The use of “reasonable” force to detain someone is still allowed in circumstances involving self-defense, home defense or to prevent a forcible felony.

The legislation also allows store employees to detain suspected shoplifters. Restaurant employees will be able to stop and hold people who try to leave without paying for a meal and licensed security guards and private detectives will also be able to detain people.

The original citizen’s arrest law came under renewed scrutiny after prosecutors used it to argue they were justified in declining to charge three white men in the February 2020 shooting death of Black jogger Ahmaud Arbery.

Arbery, 25, was running through a coastal Georgia neighborhood last year when he was pursued by three white men who claimed they thought he was a burglar.

Despite the existence of a video of the shooting, the men were not arrested or charged until after the video was leaked and went viral in May.

All three men have since been charged with murder and remain jailed without bond.

The bill now heads to Republican Governor Brian Kemp, who released a proposal in February for a bipartisan plan to repeal the statute.

“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. “This legislation has broad support among law enforcement, civil rights groups, and in the General Assembly… 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.”

HB 479 passed the House earlier this month in a 173-0 vote and was sent back to the Senate, where senators added the amendment that gave business owners the right to detain suspected shoplifters.

The amended measure was passed by the Senate 51-1 on Monday before the final vote Wednesday.

Republican state Senator Frank Ginn cast the lone vote against the bill. During debate on the bill Monday, Ginn said he didn’t feel comfortable supporting legislation that wouldn’t allow him to detain someone he caught stealing property from his neighbor’s home.

The vote marks a continuation of the successful effort to pass a new hate crimes law mandating additional criminal sentencing penalties for perpetrators who target their victims based on race, color, gender, sexual orientation, religion, sex, national origin, or disability.

Arbery’s death had also sparked demands for the passage of the new hate crimes law.

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