ATLANTA — Gov. Brian Kemp plans to sign a repeal of Georgia’s Civil War-era citizen’s arrest law on Monday, a year after the fatal shooting of Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man pursued by white men who said they suspected him of a crime.
The state House and Senate passed House Bill 479 by overwhelming margins. Kemp and lawmakers made the bill one of their top priorities after Arbery’s killing.
The outcry over Arbery’s fatal shooting, which was recorded on video by one of the murder defendants, also pushed lawmakers to give Georgia new hate crimes law in 2020, more than 15 years after the state Supreme Court overturned an earlier law.
The law would end the right of people in Georgia to make an arrest if a crime is committed in the person’s presence “or within their immediate knowledge.” It still provides for self defense and allows business owners to detain suspected thieves.
Those who had long pushed for the repeal said the law was approved in 1863 to round up escaped slaves and was later used to justify the lynching of African Americans.
Arbery, 25, was fatally shot while running through a neighborhood near Brunswick on the Georgia coast in February 2020.
The father and son who pursued Arbery — Greg and Travis McMichael — weren’t arrested or charged until the state took over the case more than two months after the shooting. A prosecutor initially assigned to the case had cited Georgia’s citizen’s arrest law to argue that the shooting was justified.
Defense lawyers said the McMichaels pursued Arbery suspecting he was a burglar, after security cameras had previously recorded him entering a home under construction. They said Travis McMichael shot Arbery while fearing for his life as they grappled over a shotgun.
Video of the fatal encounter was recorded by William “Roddie” Bryan, a neighbor who joined the chase. All three men are charged with murder.
Prosecutors have said Arbery stole nothing and was merely out jogging when the McMichaels and Bryan chased him. They remain jailed without bail.
Issues surrounding citizen’s arrest could be aired in pretrial hearings in coming days.
Under the repeal bill, people who are mere bystanders or witnesses generally would not have the right to detain people. Deadly force couldn’t be used to detain someone unless it’s in self-protection, protecting a home, or preventing a forcible felony. The changes would retain Georgia’s “stand your ground” law, which says a person who is being threatened isn’t required to retreat.
It would still allow business employees to detain people they believe stole something, and let restaurant employees detain people who try to leave without paying for a meal. It also would let licensed security guards and private detectives detain people.
Someone who is detained must be released along with their personal belongings if a police officer or sheriff’s deputy doesn’t arrive within a reasonable time.