Gov. Kemp signs bill repealing Georgia’s 1863 citizen’s arrest law

State lawmakers made bill one of their top priorities after Ahmaud Arbery’s killing

The mother of a Black man pursued and killed by white men who said they suspected him of a crime, says she is “thankful, very thankful” that Georgia has repealed its Civil War-era citizen’s arrest law.

The mother of a Black man pursued and killed by white men who said they suspected him of a crime, says she is “thankful, very thankful” that Georgia has repealed its Civil War-era citizen’s arrest law.

Wanda Cooper Jones, the mother of Ahmaud Arbery, spoke Monday after Gov. Brian Kemp signed House Bill 479, which says bystanders can no longer make an arrest in Georgia if a crime is committed in their presence.

“I think the signing of this bill will make people think before they take action into their own hands,” Cooper Jones said. “Unfortunately we had to lose my son in this manner. Had this bill been in place, I think it will protect young men as they are jogging down the street.”

The law is a continuing reaction to Arbery’s death, which was recorded on video by one of three men now charged with murder. Kemp and lawmakers made the bill one of their top priorities after Arbery’s killing, and the state House and Senate passed the repeal bill by overwhelming margins. The outcry over the shooting also pushed lawmakers last year to pass a new hate crimes law in Georgia, more than 15 years after the state Supreme Court overturned an earlier law.

“This bill makes Georgia the first state in the country to repeal its citizen’s arrest statue,” Kemp, a Republican, said before signing the measure. “Today we are replacing this Civil War-era law, ripe for abuse, with language that balances the safety and right of self-defense to person and property with our shared responsibility to root out injustice and set our state on a better path forward.”

Those who had long pushed for the repeal said the law was approved in 1863 to round up escaped slaves and was later used to justify the lynching of African Americans. Some other states are now also considering repealing such laws.

Arbery, then 25, was fatally shot while running through a neighborhood near Brunswick on the Georgia coast in February 2020. His 27th birthday would have been days ago, and Cooper Jones said she viewed the law as a birthday present to her son.

The father and son who pursued Arbery -- Greg and Travis McMichael -- weren’t arrested or charged until the state took over the case more than two months after the shooting. A prosecutor initially assigned to the case had cited Georgia’s citizen’s arrest law to argue that the shooting was justified. Lee Merritt, the family attorney, said Arbery’s relatives continue to want to see that prosecutor criminally charged.

Defense lawyers said the McMichaels 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.

Video of the fatal encounter was recorded by William “Roddie” Bryan, a neighbor who joined the chase. All three men are 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.

“Georgians and Americans across the country watched in horror as the killing of Ahmaud Arbery was brought to light on our phone screens and TV broadcasts,” Kemp said. “Ahmaud was the victim of vigilante-style of violence that has no place in our country or in our state.”

Under the repeal bill, people who are mere bystanders or witnesses generally no longer have the right to detain people. Deadly force can’t be used to detain someone unless it’s in self-protection, protecting a home, or preventing a forcible felony. The changes retain Georgia’s “stand your ground” law, which says a person who is being threatened isn’t required to retreat.

It still allows business employees to detain people they believe stole something, and lets restaurant employees detain people who try to leave without paying for a meal. It also lets 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.

Issues surrounding citizen’s arrest could be aired in pretrial hearings in the coming days. On Tuesday, the McMichaels and Bryan will go before a judge on federal hate crime charges. Later in the week, the three will be in state court for a judge to decide whether they will allow evidence of Arbery’s past crimes and mental health record to be brought up during the trial set for October.

“The point of it is to prove why Mr. Arbury was in the house at 220 Satilla Drive. Why he came running down the streets on Feb. 23 and why he refused to answer questions posed by the McMichaels or stop and wait until police arrived when the McMichaels called the police. These acts explain all of that behavior, and that’s why we think it’s relevant,” said Bob Rubin, Travis McMichael’s attorney.

The defense attorneys for the McMichaels have cited as many as 10 prior acts committed by Arbery from 2013 to the weeks before his death that they want to be brought in as evidence in the trial, including two times Arbery pleaded guilty -- for bringing a handgun inside a gym and another for attempted shoplifting.