ATLANTA (AP) — Georgia moved closer Thursday to the possible repeal of an 1863 law that lets private citizens make an arrest, more than a year after the fatal shooting of Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man chased by white men who said they suspected he had committed a crime.
House Bill 479 was approved unanimously by the chamber’s Judiciary Committee and could soon move to the House floor for a vote.
Georgia’s current law was enacted during the Civil War and allows citizens to arrest someone if a crime is committed in their presence or they have “immediate knowledge” that a crime has been committed. Critics say it has long been used to justify lynchings of African Americans.
Gov. Brian Kemp has endorsed the bill, saying Arbery’s death on Feb. 23, 2020, shows it’s time for the law to be changed.
“Some tried to justify the actions of the killers by claiming they had protection under an antiquated law that is ripe for abuse,” Kemp said last month.
The bill would remove from state law the broad powers granted to ordinary citizens to make an arrest, while allowing store and restaurant employees to detain those suspected of stealing. Licensed security guards and private detectives also would be able to make arrests.
A previous version of the bill limited the time a person could be detained before police arrive to one hour, but that was changed to stipulate a person could be held for a “reasonable” amount of time.
The father and son who armed themselves and pursued Arbery, Greg and Travis McMichael, weren’t arrested or charged until more than two months after the shooting. The first outside prosecutor assigned to the case cited Georgia’s citizen arrest law in a letter to police arguing 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.
Video of the fatal encounter was taken by William “Roddie” Bryan, a neighbor who joined the chase and also was later 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 bond.