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House Judiciary Non-Civil Committee to Hear Testimony on Whether to Repeal Georgia’s Citizen’s Arrest Law

Tomorrow, July 13th, at 10 AM, the House Judiciary Non-Civil Committee, which has jurisdiction over Georgia’s criminal laws, is scheduled to meet to hear testimony on whether to repeal the state’s citizen’s arrest law. Though a topic of great interest in the final days of the 2020 legislative session, there was little time to get a bill passed. It is encouraging that lawmakers appear committed to addressing the issue during the next session by starting the conversation around repealing the law now.

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, and it was necessary for private citizens to help detain suspects while law enforcement traveled long distances. 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 harm caused by citizen’s arrest laws is not relegated to history, either. Current Georgia 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 extensive 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. 

The danger inherent to Georgia’s citizen’s arrest law was made clear in the murder of Ahmaud Arbery. The law impeded justice in Mr. Arbery’s case for months —  the statute was cited by one of the assigned prosecutor’s on Mr. Arbery’s case as the rationale for why the men who killed Mr. Arbery didn’t face arrest or prosecution for over 8 weeks. 

We encourage you to watch Monday’s hearing here and stay poised to take action in favor of repealing Georgia’s citizen’s arrest law.