Why a diverse coalition wants to repeal Georgia’s citizen’s arrest law

The murder of Ahmaud Arbery brought the Civil War–era law back into the spotlight

Georgia Citizen's Arrest Law

Illustration by Matt Love

After three private citizens were charged with the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, a diverse coalition of activists, politicians, and even some police want to modify Georgia’s Civil War–era citizen’s arrest law.

What is a citizen’s arrest law?
Versions of the law vary in the roughly 40 states where it is on the books. Basically, in Georgia, if private citizens witness or suspect another person of committing a felony, they can detain him or her until law enforcement arrives to make a formal arrest. The roots of Georgia’s statute date to 13th-century England, when King Edward I encouraged townspeople to chase down and detain ne’er-do-wells until guards could arrive. The law has been used to justify lynchings, such as the 1946 murder of two Black couples on Moore’s Ford Bridge in Walton County.

Why are people talking about citizen’s arrest?
In February 2020, three white men chased and killed Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old Black jogger they suspected was responsible for a series of burglaries in Brunswick, Georgia. George Barnhill, the Waycross Circuit district attorney who advised the Brunswick police, cited the citizen’s arrest law to justify not charging the killers because Arbery fought back. The previous year, Hannah Payne claimed it excused her for pursuing and fatally shooting Kenneth Herring, a 62-year-old Black man who drove away from a car accident while experiencing possible diabetic shock. Both cases are still in Georgia courts. Outrage over the killings, plus renewed awareness about racial injustice after the killings of George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks, and Breonna Taylor, spurred calls to overhaul—or outright repeal—Georgia’s law.

Who’s on board with changing the law?
Nearly everyone. Marissa McCall Dodson of the Southern Center for Human Rights says it’s an antiquated law when police are rarely more than a few minutes away. The Georgia NAACP agrees. Addressing Arbery’s killing during this year’s State of the State address, Governor Brian Kemp said, “The deranged behavior that led to this tragedy was excused away because of an antiquated law that is ripe for abuse and enables sinister, evil motives.” In mid-February, floor leader state Representative Bert Reeves, R-Marietta, introduced legislation that would carve exemptions for business owners to hold shoplifters and for police officers working private jobs. On March 8, the Georgia House unanimously passed this legislation, House Bill 479.

What’s the sticking point?
Some groups, like the SCHR, want the law repealed outright. Business groups want the law’s overhaul to include legal protections for shops and restaurants to detain shoplifters and dine-and-dashers. In addition, some Second Amendment groups like Georgia Carry don’t want a repeal to modify so-called Stand Your Ground laws, which allow the use of lethal force in public when someone feels threatened, but which critics say encourages vigilantism.

This article appears in our April 2021 issue.