ATLANTA — Any proposals to do away with Georgia’s citizen’s arrest law should distinguish between an arrest made by a civilian and a citizen’s right to detain a criminal suspect, the head of the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association said Thursday.
“We don’t need [citizens] to do the job for us,” Terry Norris told members of a legislative committee holding hearings on whether to reform or repeal the state’s citizen’s arrest law. “But they are the eyes and ears of every law enforcement officer.”
The General Assembly passed a hate-crimes bill late last month, and Gov. Brian Kemp signed it three days later.
But with time running out on the 2020 legislative session, lawmakers did not take up other criminal justice reform measures introduced after the February shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man gunned down while jogging near Brunswick. Three white men, including a father and son, have been charged with murder.
The House Judiciary Non-Civil Committee opened hearings last week into one of those subsequent proposals, legislation to repeal Georgia’s citizen’s arrest law.
Georgia Rep. Carl Gilliard, D-Garden City, called the Arbery case a “citizen’s arrest gone wrong.”
“The eyes of the nation are on Georgia,” Gilliard told the committee Thursday during its second hearing on the citizen’s arrest issue. “What we have here is an opportunity to send a message to the world that Georgia has no tolerance for people taking the law into their own hands and taking lives.”
“The criminal legal system in Georgia does not rely on private citizens having police powers,” added Mazie Lynn Causey, a lobbyist for the Georgia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. “(Citizen’s arrests) allow due process to be jettisoned in order to let private citizens assume the role of enforcer, prosecutor and judge.”
The idea of reforming or repealing the citizen’s arrest law drew support Thursday from Georgia’s law enforcement community.
Pete Skandalakis, executive director of the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council of Georgia, said he never came across an incident involving a citizen’s arrest in 32 years as a prosecutor.
“I don’t think prosecutors would object to repealing it,” he said.
Norris, executive director of the sheriffs’ association, said he doesn’t believe the law enforcement community and the bill’s supporters are far apart on how to approach the citizen’s arrest law.
But he said citizens must retain the right to detain someone they see committing a crime in order to protect lives and property.
Norris said any citizen who detains a suspect must notify law enforcement authorities immediately and must not be allowed to transport a suspect.
Skandalakis and Causey agreed that situations involving a suspect trying to rob a retail store or break into a citizen’s home or car are covered in other sections of the state’s legal code and have nothing to do with the citizen’s arrest law.
But committee Vice Chairman Bert Reeves, R-Marietta, said he’d like the committee to consider legislation that would clarify the rights of shopkeepers and homeowners to detain a criminal suspect.
“Every major retail store out there has so much invested in their loss-prevention program … in dealing with retail shoplifters,” he said.
Reeves said clarifying the right to detain a suspect would make it a matter of state law rather than leaving it to the subjective judgment of a prosecutor.