Though none of the criminal justice reform measures put together in response to the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd made it through the 2020 Georgia General Assembly session, House Speaker David Ralston still wants to consider some of the proposals.
While a hate crimes bill passed easily, other bills to make structural changes to Georgia’s laws didn’t get much action this session.
Typically, major changes take time to go through the legislative process. In a typical year, the session would have ended in late March or April. But because of COVID-19, it was suspended, and legislators returned in June to quickly finish up the session.
One of the criminal justice reform measures is the repeal or reform to the state’s citizen’s arrest law. The Brunswick men who are currently charged with Arbery’s murder in Brunswick claimed they were performing a citizen’s arrest under Georgia law. The men weren’t arrested after the shooting and local authorities declined to prosecute.
Monday, the House Judiciary Non-Civil Committee held the first hearing on a bill that would repeal citizen’s arrest in its entirety.
While doing away with people chasing down alleged criminals and detaining or killing them under color of law, repeal of the law could also impact Georgians who are victims of home invasions or assaults, as well as stores that detain shoplifters.
Georgia House Democrats put together a package of bills, dubbed “Justice for All,” in the 2020 session, including House Bill 1203, the citizen’s arrest bill sponsored by Rep. Carl Gilliard, D-Garden City.
Rep. Philip Singleton, R-Sharpsburg, and Rep. Jeff Jones, R-Brunswick, have also introduced a bill to make substantive changes to citizen’s arrest. HB 1213 would leave in place the ability to make a citizen’s arrest, but would tighten up requirements and place strict limits on the use of deadly force.
The state’s current citizen’s arrest law is just two sentences: “A private person may arrest an offender if the offense is committed in his presence or within his immediate knowledge. If the offense is a felony and the offender is escaping or attempting to escape, a private person may arrest him upon reasonable and probable grounds of suspicion.”
The current state law dates from 1864, according to Gwinnett County District Attorney Danny Porter, who testified at the hearing. But citizen’s arrest dates from medieval Europe, Porter said, according to the Brunswick News.
The President of the Georgia NAACP said at the hearing that the law was put in place during a time when slaveholders were trying to prevent runaway slaves from joining the Union Army.
And after the war, vigilante mobs used it to justify lynching, Woodall said, according to Capitol Beat News Service.
Committee members questioned how repealing the law would affect shoplifters or those defending their homes.
Marissa McCall Dodson, public policy director for the Southern Center for Human Rights, said the citizen’s arrest law could be repealed while maintaining the ability of shopkeepers to detain shoplifting suspects, according to Capitol Beat. Homeowners would still be protected by the legal right to self-defense, she said.
But without citizen’s arrest, Georgians wouldn’t have a right to detain someone breaking into their home or otherwise committing a crime against them. They would have a right to use deadly force against them.
If citizen’s arrest is repealed, “you incentivize a homeowner to kill someone rather than detain them under the citizen’s arrest law,” Porter said, according to Capitol Beat.
The Georgia ACLU’s political director, Christopher Bruce, said at the hearing that “law enforcement has resources to handle these kinds of things; we should encourage citizens to look to law enforcement,” according to Capitol Beat.
Bills are often changed in committee, a process known as “perfecting.” Bills rarely end up passing in their original form.
Other bills in the Democratic package are:
• The elimination of “no knock warrants,” (HB 1209).
• Significant changes to the state’s “stand your ground” self defense law (HB 1190).
• The “End Racial Profiling Act (HB 1207).
• The Use of Force Data Collection Act (HB 636).
• HB 1230, which removes official/qualified immunity for law enforcement officers engaging in misconduct or illegal activities.
• The Change of Venue for District Attorney Act (HB 1186).
• HB 1210, which would repeal provisions that give law enforcement officers who have been charged with crimes advance notice before their case is sent to a grand jury and permits them to present evidence to a grand jury. Typically, defendants do not present evidence to a grand jury.
• HB 1214, which creates a District Attorney Oversight Commission that could discipline, remove or force the retirement of district attorneys. While there is a similar commission in place for judges, there is no current mechanism to discipline DAs.
• HB 1187, which prohibits the use of choke holds.
• HB 1185 , which would require peace officers to wear body cameras while on duty.
• HB 1239, which would provide for the appointment of a special prosecuting attorney when a law enforcement officer is charged with a felony or family violence.
• HB 1250, which would require that police officers be trained on how to deal with individuals with PTSD.
Singleton said he has also been working on bills to end no-knock warrants as well as civil asset forfeiture.
All House and Senate bills can be viewed in their entirety at legis.ga.gov .
Capitol Beat News contributed to this story.