The ‘Citizen’s Arrest’ Law That Protected Ahmaud Arbery’s Killers Is Finally Getting Reformed

Nearly a year after the 25-year-old Black man's death, Georgia is finally doing something about it.
February 17, 2021, 7:22pm
This photo combo of images taken Thursday, May 7, 2020, and provided by the Glynn County Detention Center, in Georgia, show Gregory McMichael, left, and his son Travis McMichael.
This photo combo of images taken Thursday, May 7, 2020, and provided by the Glynn County Detention Center, in Georgia, show Gregory McMichael, left, and his son Travis McMichael. (Glynn County Detention Center via AP)

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Nearly a year after Ahmaud Arbery’s death, the Georgia law that originally protected the young Black man’s killers from facing charges is about to change. 

Republican Gov. Brian Kemp announced Tuesday that he would support a plan to reform the state’s more than 150-year-old “citizen’s arrest” law that allows any private citizen to detain someone they suspect of committing a crime. Under the proposed change, only licensed security guards, business owners and their employees, vehicle weight inspectors, and private investigators would be allowed to detain citizens suspected of a crime—not regular people, like the white father and son who detained Arbery. 

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The new law would also ban any use of force that’s likely to cause injury or death during detainment, except in cases of self-defense. 

“Some tried to justify the actions of the killers by claiming they had protection under an antiquated law that is ripe for abuse,” Gov. Kemp said Tuesday. “That is why today my administration is introducing significant reforms to our state citizen’s arrest statute to close dangerous loopholes that could be used to justify future acts of vigilantism.”

With other high-profile Georgia Republicans onboard, the proposal is all but guaranteed bipartisan support in the state’s Legislature.

“I look at it as, Ahmaud didn’t die in vain,” Wanda Cooper-Jones, Arbery’s mother, told local CBS affiliate.

On February 23, 2020, Arbery was jogging in his neighborhood in Georgia when Gregory and Travis McMichael spotted the 25-year-old Black man and suspected he was tied to a string of burglaries in the area. Armed with a pistol and a shotgun, they began tailing Arbery in their truck. After pulling up to him, the duo blocked his path. Arbery and Travis got into a brief scuffle over the shotgun, before three shots were fired and Arbery was fatally wounded. 

The two men were arrested following Arbery’s death, but both were initially released from custody because the local district attorney, George Barnhill, argued their actions were justified because they were carrying out a citizen’s arrest and claimed that they’d used deadly force in self-defense. 

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Georgia’s Bureau of Investigation took over the case in May 2020 after national outcry, and the McMichaels were both eventually charged with murder and aggravated assault. A trial date has not yet been set. 

The new bill would also only allow certain individuals to hold suspects for up to an hour, until law enforcement shows up. If authorities don’t come, the detained person would have to be released. Law enforcement officers would also still be allowed to carry out arrests outside of their jurisdiction. 

The proposal to reform Georgia’s citizen’s arrest laws was first made last June by Georgia Democrat Rep. Carl Gilliard, shortly after Arbery’s death received national attention, along with other highly publicized deaths of Black men and women at the hands of law enforcement.

“I think it sends a message not only to his family but all those who cry justice,” Gilliard told the Associated Press.

Civil rights organizations like Georgia’s NAACP chapter and the Southern Center for Human Rights applauded Gov. Kemp’s call to repeal the law and called it an out-of-date practice that doesn’t align with today’s law enforcement standards.

“Citizen’s Arrest laws date back to medieval England and the United States’ colonial period, when it could take days for law enforcement to arrive at a crime scene, and it was necessary for private citizens to help detain suspects while law enforcement traveled long distances,” the two organizations said in a joint statement Tuesday. “Now, 911 is widely available and police or first responders generally respond within minutes.”