Kemp unveils bipartisan 'overhaul' of Georgia's citizen's arrest law

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Georgia lawmakers will consider an overhaul of the state’s citizen’s arrest law, nearly a year after the death of Ahmaud Arbery, who was killed by two residents in Brunswick last February.

Gov. Brian Kemp announced the details of the reform bill Tuesday during a news briefing, where he was joined by a bipartisan group of lawmakers. Rep. Bert Reeves, R-Marietta, will introduce the measure in the House.

“One of the most fundamental rights of any citizen is the right to defend themselves or others, and this legislation does not undermine or infringe on that sacred protection,” Kemp said. “This bill repeals the current Civil War-era statute in order to prevent the terrible consequences of a vague and outdated law, and clarifies when a citizen, business owner or law enforcement officer may reasonably detain an individual.”

Current Georgia law allows a civilian to arrest someone if he or she witnesses a crime or has “immediate knowledge” the offender has committed one. If the crime is a felony and the suspect attempts to escape, the law also allows any person to detain a suspect.

Members of the House Judiciary Non-Civil Committee spent the summer trying to decide whether to repeal the current law or add a language to clarify a private person’s authority under the law. Lawmakers heard testimony from civil rights organizations, defense attorneys, prosecutors and law enforcement officials.

Critics of the law said that it dates back to the Civil War when it was used to kill and abuse newly freed Black Georgians legally.

Kemp said his proposal is a balanced approach and has the support of civil rights advocacy groups and the law enforcement community.

The bill would eliminate the right for civilians to perform citizen’s arrest with some exceptions. The Georgia NACCP and Southern Center For Human Rights, in a statement Tuesday, commended Kemp’s dedication to reforming the law, calling it “a great first step.”

The bill would grant immunity to retail businesses and restaurants from false arrest civil lawsuits. Those business owners under the measure can detain someone suspected of theft in their establishment. Weight inspectors, licensed private security guards and private investigators also would be allowed to detain someone while on duty. The measure, however, would limit how long a person could be detained to one hour, and it bans the use of force, only if it does not count as self-defense or falls under Georgia’s “stand your ground” law.

Georgia’s “stand your grand” law allows Georgians to use deadly force to defend themselves, other people or property if there is “reasonable belief” it is necessary to “prevent death, bodily injury or a forcible felony.”

Waycross prosecutor George Barnhill cited Georgia’s citizen’s arrest law as a reason not to pursue charges last February against the father-and-son duo of Gregory and Travis McMichael after the pair was caught on video following Arbery, who was jogging in a neighborhood near Brunswick. Travis McMichael shot and killed Arbery, a Black man, after a confrontation Feb. 23, 2020.

“A citizen’s arrest law, properly used, can keep law-abiding Georgians and their property safe, but as we have seen in the past year, it must never be allowed to justify or excuse criminal behavior,” Attorney General Chris Carr said.

The bill would allow police officers to make arrests outside of their jurisdictions if they are assisting officers in another jurisdiction, while in “hot pursuit” of a suspect who has escaped their jurisdiction or if they see or have “immediate knowledge” of a crime.

“The evolution of society and technology requires us to revise and update current laws to be applicable to the 21st Century,” Department of Public Safety Commissioner Lt. Col. Chris Wright said. “This law dates back to the 19th Century. The proposed legislation regarding arrests by non-law enforcement looks to correct the outdated language, which is much needed.”

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