ATLANTA -- Georgia lawmakers took another step Monday to repeal a citizen's arrest law predating the Civil War, acting little more than a year after the fatal shooting of Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man pursued by armed white men.
The Senate voted 52-1 for House Bill 479, which 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.”
Sen. Bill Cowsert, an Athens Republican, gave an explanation that focused on what police officers, business owners and individual citizens could still do to detain. But he said the measure made one key change.
“You can’t use deadly force to stop somebody if you think they might have stolen a TV from somebody’s house down the street, because sometimes this leads to consequences that aren’t intended when citizens try to play police officer, not being trained and not having the full picture," Cowsert said.
Gov. Brian Kemp has endorsed the bill. It goes back to the House because senators added an amendment that gave all business owners the right to detain suspected thieves.
Advocates say the 1863 law is steeped in racism and was used to round up suspected escaped slaves and as a justification for lynching African Americans.
Many see the effort as a continuation of an effort last year that gave Georgia a new hate crimes law, more than 15 years after the state Supreme Court overturned the state's first attempt. The pressure for the hate crimes law became overwhelming last year after public outcry over Arbery's fatal shooting, which was recorded on video.
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 more than two months after the shooting. One prosecutor assigned to the case cited Georgia’s citizen arrest law to argue the shooting was justified.
The McMichaels’ lawyers have said they 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. The McMichaels are charged with murder.
Video of the fatal encounter was recorded by William “Roddie” Bryan, a neighbor who joined the chase and is also 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.
Under the 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 that says a person isn’t required to retreat.
“You may still defend yourself, just like we’ve always been able to do in the state of Georgia," Cowsert said.
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 would also let licensed security guards and private detectives detain people.
Sen. Frank Ginn, a Danielsville Republican who is the only lawmaker to vote against the measure so far said he thought people should be able to stop and question people they spot with “some loot they have obviously stolen.”
The Senate voted 33-19 for an amendment by Sen. Lindsay Tippins that would extend detention rights to any business owners, instead of the store and restaurants previously specifically named. 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.
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