Connect with us


Georgia bill repeals citizen’s arrest laws, but doesn’t touch Stand Your Ground



GEORGIA – This session, Georgia lawmakers passed a bill that would repeal the state’s citizens arrest law, in the wake of the homicide of Ahmaud Arbery in Brunswick.

In a rare bipartisan showing, the House voted 169-0 in favor of House Bill 479, which prevents citizens from detaining a person if they suspect that person has committed a crime.

It remains legal for businesses to detain such a person if the alleged crime was committed on the business property.

For Rep. Carl Gilliard, D-Savannah, who co-authored the bill, it’s a point of pride.

“I think we sent a big signal that Georgia must become the state that is too busy to hate,” Gilliard said.

The Civil War-era law was originally put into place in 1863, and was passed on racist precedent: the law allowed any Georgia resident to arrest escaped slaves fleeing to fight in the Union Army, and it has been used to justify the lynching of Black people in the state.

“It was a legal law on how to lynch Black folks, so outdated and antiquated,” Gilliard said.

Gilliard’s connection to the bill is personal. His oldest brother, Jerome Levant, was killed and mutilated in Pembroke in 1957.

“What happened to him, to this day, has not been answered,” Gilliard said. “But there are so many people like him, whether it’s lynched, or all within the confines of law that people have taken it into their own hands to take people’s lives.”

Gilliard pointed to Arbery’s death as a recent example.

The passage of the bill actually came a few weeks after the one-year anniversary of Arbery’s death. The father and son who pursued Arbery — Greg and Travis McMichael — weren’t arrested or charged until more than two months after the shooting.

Georgia’s citizen’s arrest law was cited by a prosecutor assigned to the case 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 were charged with murder, but the case has not yet gone to trial.

“Ahmaud Arbery was an atrocity for Georgia and the nation, that this young man was patently gunned down, shot in daylight and videotaped by one of the culprits,” Gilliard said.

The bill has not yet been signed, but Gov. Brian Kemp has said he intends to sign it, and applauded lawmakers for passing it.

“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,” Kemp said in a statement towards the end of March.

Under the new bill, businesses are still allowed to detain suspected thieves, and provisions for self-defense are included. But for bystanders and witnesses of a crime, arresting a fellow citizen isn’t usually an option.

Deadly force can only legally be used for self-protection, protecting a home, or preventing a forcible felony, effectively retaining Georgia’s Stand Your Ground law that says a person isn’t required to retreat if threatened.

It also would let licensed security guards and private detectives detain people. Restaurant owners can detain those who don’t pay for meals.

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.”

One thing the bill doesn’t change though, is Georgia’s Stand Your Ground laws. In summer of last year, the Georgia Democratic Caucus unveiled a list of goals for this year’s session, one of which was initially a package deal: repealing both Stand Your Ground and the citizen’s arrest laws.

The language of the law allows Georgians to use deadly force to defend themselves, others or property based on a “reasonable belief” that such force is necessary to prevent death, injury or a forcible felony.

Gilliard said he sees both sides of the argument.

“If someone’s coming in your house, they’re intruding upon your premises, you have the right to protect yourself,” Gilliard said.

But the danger there is the subjective nature of what is “reasonable,” Gilliard said.

“But when you say that someone came toward me, and I really believed they were going to shoot me, but they never even pulled out a gun, and I shot it down because I reasonably thought that that person was a threat to me, that’s how Trayvon Martin died,” Gilliard said. “We can’t be judge and jury over someone.”

Gilliard said repealing Stand Your Ground is still something the Democratic Caucus is looking at in the future, but for now, repealing citizen’s arrest is a start.

“We as a caucus and all the above, we’re not leaving it off the table,” Gilliard said. “I think that’s going to be revisited with a vigor.”