Advocates seek law change to end citizen arrests in Georgia

Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar speaks during a White House Coronavirus Task Force briefing at the Department of Education building Wednesday, July 8, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
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Civil rights groups called for Georgia lawmakers to repeal the state’s 19th-century citizen’s arrest law Monday, but some Republican lawmakers voiced concerns that without the law, property owners might not have the authority to detain thieves until police arrive.

The law came under fire after it was initially used as a justification for the white men who shot and killed Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man, near Brunswick in February. The law also factored into the claims last year by a white woman that she was justified in shooting a Black man in Clayton County. In both those cases, additional evidence has dispelled the notions that the shooters could use the law to justify their actions.

Advocates say the law is steeped in racism and slavery, and was used to round up suspected escaped slaves and then as a justification for the lynching of African Americans.

“The broad language of this statute has dangerously allowed for private citizens to take the law into their own hands, which ultimately would always lead to devastating consequences,” state NAACP President James Woodall said. He argued that private citizens are likely more biased against African Americans, and face no scrutiny, unlike police.

Opponents argue that today it encourages people to use force to arrest people when they should instead wait for police, encouraging violence.

“It has historically allowed slave patrols and lynch mobs to take the law into their own hands,” said Christopher Bruce, political director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia. “And today, it continues to permit people to weaponize their own racial biases and deprive innocent Georgians of their most basic liberties — freedom and life.”

Efforts to repeal the law failed during the recently concluded 2020 legislative session, but the House Judiciary Committee is holding a series of hearings this summer, possibly setting the groundwork for a newly elected General Assembly to consider changes next year.

Gwinnett County District Attorney Danny Porter testified that he generally opposes citizens arresting one another.

“They usually turn out badly. They’re usually based on someone’s misinterpretation of the law,” Porter said. “Citizen’s arrest, in this age of increased police forces, is really kind of an archaic concept.”

But he urged lawmakers to make sure stores can detain shoplifters and homeowners can detain burglars. He said that under the state’s self defense laws, lawmakers could create a situation where it’s legal for a homeowner to shoot a thief but not detain him.

“Then there’s no incentive not to shoot him, because under our self defense laws, I’d be justified,” Porter said.

Others disagreed with those interpretations, saying there’s already room under Georgia law even without citizen’s arrest for merchants, property owners and other to detain suspected lawbreakers until police arrive.

“Those detentions can remain lawful without providing arrest powers to private persons,” said Marissa McCall Dodson, public policy director for the Southern Center for Human Rights.

Bruce said the ACLU recommends that Georgia write a specific provision for merchant detentions based on Virginia law.

State Rep. Bert Reeves said he feared that repealing citizen’s arrest could leave people making choices that would be highly subjective based on the facts of a situation.

“I don’t think we can subjectively look at this and come to a conclusion that properly balances property rights in this,” the Marietta Republican said.