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Citizen’s Arrest Repeal Bill Passes Out of Georgia House Unanimously

Today, less than two weeks after the one-year anniversary of Ahmaud Arbery’s death, the citizen’s arrest repeal bill, HB 479, passed unanimously out of the Georgia House! HB 479 completely repeals Georgia’s citizen’s arrest law, and clarifies the ability of owners and employees of restaurants, off-duty law enforcement, private security guards, and weight inspectors to briefly detain others in certain limited circumstances. 

“Today, the House took an important step to protect Black Georgians by voting to repeal the citizens’ arrest statute, an unnecessary law that has been used for more than 150 years to justify anti-Black violence,” said Marissa Dodson, SCHR’s Public Policy Director.

Georgia’s current citizen’s arrest law allows a private arrest in two circumstances: when a person commits any offense in the arrestor’s presence or within his or her immediate knowledge; or when the arrestor has reasonable and probable grounds to suspect a person has committed a felony offense. These laws are dangerous for many reasons — among them that law enforcement officers receive training on how and when to safely perform an arrest, and when use of force may be appropriate. Lay-persons do not. Because Georgia’s citizen’s arrest law has multiple opaque legal requirements, members of the public with no legal or law enforcement training who attempt to perform arrests risk creating situations that are dangerous to both themselves and others. 

In addition to being dangerous, citizen’s arrest laws have far outlived their own usefulness. The laws date back to medieval England and the United States’ colonial period, when it could take days for law enforcement to arrive at a crime scene. Now, 911 is widely available and police/first responders generally respond within minutes. 

The racist implications of the law also cannot be ignored.

Georgia’s own citizen’s arrest law passed in 1863, in the midst of the Civil War. Mercer University Law School Professor Tim Floyd has stated that while it is unclear why Georgia’s citizen’s arrest was created, their application followed a clear pattern: “Often during the lynching era, these white mobs would claim that they were exercising the right of citizen’s arrest.” And there are multiple examples of just that: on January 22, 1912, four Black people in Hamilton, Georgia –three men and a woman–were citizen’s arrested and lynched, accused of killing a white planter who was sexually abusing Black girls and women. On July 25, 1946, two Black couples were dragged from their car at Moore’s Ford in Walton County, Georgia, and shot about sixty times by a mob of white men making a “citizen’s arrest.” No one was ever charged with their murders.

The use of the state’s citizens’ arrest law to justify the killing of Black people by white people has continued in recent years — in 2020, after the killing of Ahmaud Arbery while he jogged in Brunswick, and in 2019, after the killing of Kenneth Herring, who was chased after a traffic accident.  

SCHR’s Public Policy team was central to the creation and passage of this important legislation. SCHR is proud of the work, and thankful for the support of our coalition partners, especially the Georgia NAACP and the JUSTGeorgia coalition, who stood with us in centering the truth about this law’s racist history and brutal impacts to hold our state accountable.

HB 479 will now go to the Senate.