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Georgia Lawmakers Move to Weaken Civil War-Era Citizen’s Arrest Law Cited In Ahmaud Arbery Case

Georgia is set to overhaul a controversial citizen’s arrest law that dates back to the Civil War-era, and was cited by the three white men charged in the death of 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery.

Arbery was out for a jog in February 2020 in Glynn County, Georgia, when he was chased down and fatally shot by a white trio composed of father-son duo Gregory and Travis McMichael and their neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan, who all claimed they thought Arbery was a burglary suspect.

Ahmaud Arbery. (Photo: Family photo/Facebook)

Georgia is now on track to become the first state to repeal the Civil War-era law permitting citizens to arrest a person they suspect of committing a crime. All 50 states have some form of a citizen’s arrest law.

The Georgia House voted 169-0 on Wednesday to approve HB 479, which guts the controversial law by repealing citizen’s arrest, after the Senate approved the measure by a vote of 51-1 earlier this week.

“This is a monumental moment in Georgia history to repeal this antiquated citizen’s arrest law,” said Georgia NAACP President James Woodall.

The law was scrutinized after it initially was used to justify not charging the three men involved in Arbery’s death.

Critics of the law, which has been around since 1863, say it has been used by white citizens to justify the killing of Black people. Those critics say before the law was used to justify lynchings in the 19th and 20th centuries, it allowed Georgians to capture slaves who fled to join the Union Army.

“When lynch mobs would execute someone without due process, they would often claim they were exercising their right of citizen’s arrest,” said Timothy Floyd, a professor at Mercer University School of Law in Macon, Georgia.

Gov. Brian Kemp expressed his support for the bill earlier this year and is expected to sign it into law.

“Our overhaul of the Georgia’s citizen’s arrest statute strikes a critical balance by allowing Georgians to protect themselves and their families, while also repealing Civil War-era language in our laws that is ripe for abuse,” Kemp said. “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.”

(From left) Gregory McMichael, Travis McMichael, William Bryan. (Photos: Glynn County Sheriff’s Office)

The bill still allows employees at businesses, those conducting business on someone else’s property, security officers, private investigators and inspectors at truck scales to detain someone believed to have committed a crime.

Under the current law Georgians can carry out an arrest if the crime “is committed in his presence or within his immediate knowledge.”

If the person is suspected of committing a felony and tries to flee, an arrest can be carried out “upon reasonable and probable grounds of suspicion.”

No trial date for Bryan or the McMichaels has been set.

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