ATLANTA – Georgia lawmakers gave final passage Wednesday to a bill to repeal the state's citizen's arrest law, acting little more than a year after the fatal shooting of a Black man pursued by white men who said they suspected him of a crime.
The state House voted 169-0 to approve Senate changes to House Bill 479, sending it to Gov. Brian Kemp for his expected signature. The legislation was one of the top legislative priorities this session in the aftermath of the killing of Ahmaud Arbery.
“I look forward to signing it into law as we continue to send a clear message that the Peach State will not tolerate sinister acts of vigilantism in our communities,” the Republican governor said in a statement.
Many see the legislation as a continuation of an effort last year that gave Georgia a new hate crimes law, more than 15 years after the state Supreme Court overturned the state’s first attempt. The pressure for the hate crimes law became overwhelming last year after a public outcry over Arbery’s fatal shooting, which was recorded on video.
The measure now awaiting Kemp’s signature to become law would end the right of people in Georgia to make an arrest if a crime is committed in the person’s presence “or within their immediate knowledge.”
The closely watch bill has been a heavily negotiated priority of both Republicans and Democrats, passing on the final day of Georgia's 2021 legislative session. It still would allow for self defense and for business owners to detain suspected thieves in what Kemp called a “critical balance.”
Rep. Carl Gilliard, a Democrat who had long lobbied for the law's repeal, called the 1863 law “outdated and antiquated," saying it was steeped in racism and was once used to round up suspected escaped slaves and to justify lynching of African Americans.
The Rev. James Woodall, state president of the Georgia NAACP, called the repeal of the law “a monumental moment in Georgia history.”
Arbery, 25, was fatally shot while running through a neighborhood near Brunswick on the Georgia coast in February 2020.
The father and son who pursued Arbery — Greg and Travis McMichael — weren’t arrested or charged until more than two months after the shooting. One prosecutor assigned to the case cited Georgia’s citizen's arrest law to argue that the shooting was justified.
The McMichaels’ lawyers have said they pursued Arbery suspecting he was a burglar, after security cameras had previously recorded him entering a home under construction. They said Travis McMichael shot Arbery while fearing for his life as they grappled over a shotgun. The McMichaels are charged with murder.
Video of the fatal encounter was recorded by William “Roddie” Bryan, a neighbor who joined the chase and is also charged with murder.
Prosecutors have said Arbery stole nothing and was merely out jogging when the McMichaels and Bryan chased him. They remain jailed without bail.
Under the bill, people who are mere bystanders or witnesses generally would not have the right to detain people. Deadly force couldn’t be used to detain someone unless it’s in self-protection, protecting a home, or preventing a forcible felony. The changes would retain Georgia’s “stand your ground” law that says a person isn’t required to retreat.
“Deadly force is only permissible to be used if you are defending yourself or somebody else against a forcible felony or the threat of substantial bodily injury or death,” said Rep. Bert Reeves, a Republican from the Atlanta suburb of Marietta.
It would still allow business employees to detain people they believe stole something and let restaurant employees detain people who try to leave without paying for a meal. It also would let licensed security guards and private detectives detain people.
Someone who is detained must be released along with their personal belongings if a police officer or sheriff's deputy doesn't arrive within a reasonable time.
“We have created structure around what this detention looks like," Reeves said "There are rules. You have to have probable cause. It has to be reasonable. You have to call the police in a reasonable time or release that person.”
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