Lawmakers 'close to consensus' on changes to citizen's arrest law

Riley Bunch/CNHI

Protesters called for state lawmakers to repeal the citizen's arrest law as the General Assembly reconvened after hiatus on June 15.

ATLANTA — In a rarity under the Gold Dome, state lawmakers, lawyers and sheriffs agree that the legislature needs to do something about Georgia’s Civil War-era citizen's arrest law.

During a second House committee meeting on Thursday, lawmakers said they are nearing an agreement on amendments to the law or a flat-out repeal.

The law has been targeted by some lawmakers and civil rights activists after a prosecutor used it in describing the February shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed Black man who was reportedly chased down by three white men and shot by one in Brunswick. The three men have been indicted for murder.

Pete Skandalakis, executive director of the Prosecuting Attorneys' Council of Georgia, said in his more than three decades as a prosecutor he has never seen it used.

"I do think that it's time to look at this statute to discuss — like this committee is doing — whether or not it needs to be repealed in total or it needs to be reformed,” he said “ ... I don't think you would see prosecutors object to repeal of the citizen's arrest law.”

Terry Norris, executive director of the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association, said the groups in favor of amending the law and those against are “not far apart” in their views.

Norris said one thing that should be considered is making a "distinction between detention and arrest" to protect the right of private citizens to detain a person if the person is suspected of committing a crime that threatens a person’s well-being or property.

"I do think there is a role for the public in helping to enforce the law,” he said.

Rep. Bert Reeves, R-Marietta, and other lawmakers said the committee needs to solidify exceptions for security guards and store owners.

But the committee is “very close to consensus,” he said.

“There are a few issues that are very important to me as far as being able to make sure that homeowners and property owners have the right to detain somebody until the authorities arrive,” he said.

Mazie Lynn Causey, with the Georgia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said attempts at arrests by private citizens “generally turn out badly.”

"We ought to take notice and admit that expecting our neighbors to appropriately wield arrest powers is unreasonable at best and fatal at worst,” she said.

Both the NAACP and the ACLU of Georgia testified during the first hearing that the law has been historically used to justify the killing of Black people.

James Woodall, president of the NAACP of Georgia, said the law was put in place after the Emancipation Proclamation to allow white Georgians to capture fleeing slaves.

“There is no escaping the legislative intent of why this statute was created in the first place,” he said. "And so to ignore that would to, literally, be complicit in white supremacy.”

Riley Bunch covers the Georgia Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites.

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