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Maggie Lee

Georgians can arrest each other. But should they be able to?

Maggie Lee
Marchers in Atlanta carry signs reading "Repeal Citizen's Arrest Law" It's time to repeal Georgia's citizen's arrest law, according to the ACLU, the Southern Center for Human Rights and other activists and protestors. Credit: Kelly Jordan
It’s time to repeal Georgia’s citizen’s arrest law, according to the ACLU, the Southern Center for Human Rights, other activists and some protestors on Atlanta’s streets last month. Credit: Kelly Jordan

By Maggie Lee

A fire that started in Brunswick over citizen’s arrest has reached the Georgia state Capitol.

The law authorizes any Georgian who thinks they saw someone committing a felony to detain that person.

A southeast Georgia prosecutor cited it when he said there was insufficient probable cause to arrest Travis and Gregory McMichael in the killing of black jogger Ahmad Arbery.

And that’s why the law is in the spotlight and is the target of calls for repeal.

The citizen’s arrest law is outmoded except for two categories, said Gwinnett County District Attorney Danny Porter: one category is apprehending shoplifters and the other is defense of the home by homeowners.

Outside of those, Porter said he’s mainly reminded of Mayberry goof Gomer Pyle trying to make citizen’s arrests on The Andy Griffith Show.

“They usually turn out badly,” Porter told the Georgia House Judiciary Non-Civil Committee held a hearing Monday morning. “They usually are … somebody’s misinterpretation of the law. Or I’ve even seen them where they’ve attempted citizen’s arrest for noise violations.”

(Citizen’s arrest is only for state law violations, he said.)

Some called for its repeal entirely.

“No person should be authorized to conduct an arrest of another in Georgia unless he or she is a trained, law enforcement officer,” said Marissa McCall Dodson, public policy director at the Southern Center for Human Rights. “Citizen’s arrest was first created when law enforcement resources were scarce, and response times could take days.”

It was also established during one of the worst periods of racial tension in U.S. history she said, and was sometimes used to justify lynching of Black Americans by white Americans.

Georgia NAACP President James Woodall said there is no evidence that citizen’s arrest is doing anything to maintain or preserve public welfare.

The use of citizen’s arrest to justify violence against people including Arbery, Woodall said, “undoubtedly are connected to the racist underpinnings of the legislative intent of this provision, the statutory vagueness that facilitates continued racial violence and the complete lack of accountability surrounding citizens arrest.”

But for others it’s not so simple.

State Rep. Ed Setzler, R-Acworth, pointed out that the McMichaels were not able to hide behind citizen’s arrest.

In the end, a different prosecutor did bring murder charges against the McMichaels and the GBI made arrests. (Though all that only happened after the state stepped into what was a apparently a botched local process.)

Setzler said Woodall’s testimony consisted of some of the most offensive, non-probative reckless statements he’d heard in 16 years on the committee.

“There are about 18 things you said that were reckless and indefensible. And I think it trivializes the real issues that are in play,” Setzler told the state president of the NAACP.

At that moment committee chair state Rep. Chuck Efstration, R-Dacula, cut off Setzler and said that the hearing must move along.

Discussion over Porter’s two points — the shoplifting apprehensions and home defense — did take up a good bit of the roughly hour-long hearing.

State Rep. Bert Reeves, R-Marietta, asked each of the citizen’s arrest opponents whether a resident should be able to detain home invaders.

Dodson said she believes the conversation should be around what people feel comfortable doing — calling the police first and detaining the person only if they feel comfortable doing so.

But Reeves called her analysis subjective.

“I think that we will run into a tremendous series of problems if we try to address this where subjective interpretation is what we’re looking at,” said Reeves, who is also one of Gov. Brian Kemp’s official liaisons to the state House.

Reeves said the hearing is the start of a long conversation.

Democrats are broadly united behind repeal. Even at least two House Republicans are signed on to the idea. But a Democratic House bill filed in June this year had little chance of passage in the 11 working days that were left in the state lawmakers’ annual session.

The next session begins in January.

The hearing on the bill is the first of a summer series. It’s relatively unusual to hold summer hearings without at least naming some official study committee.

But in the of three Republicans on the committee — Efstration, Setzler and Reeves — some Democrats see three metro Atlanta seats that are flippable this fall.

Talking about changes to citizen’s arrest might be seen as the sort of thing that could win over white suburban voters leaning in more and more to the Democratic Party.

We’ll see if the topic turns up in Republican campaign literature.

The next virtual meeting is scheduled for July 23 at 10 a.m.  The link will be posted on the state House page.

Documents

July 13, 2020 State House Non-Judiciary Committee hearing on citizen’s arrest law.

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Maggie Lee
Maggie Lee

Maggie Lee is a freelance reporter who's been covering Georgia and metro Atlanta government and politics since 2008.

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