Gov. Brian Kemp and state lawmakers detailed proposed changes to Georgia’s citizen’s arrest law on Feb. 16, 2021. (Photo by Beau Evans)

ATLANTA – State officials unveiled details of a bipartisan bill Tuesday aimed at revising Georgia’s citizen’s arrest law to limit who can detain someone suspected of a crime.

The first major criminal-justice measure proposed in the 2021 legislative session, sponsored by Rep. Bert Reeves, R-Marietta, would repeal a current Georgia law that broadly allows private citizens to detain someone who commits a crime in their presence or during an escape attempt.

It would still allow owners and employees in businesses including restaurants, as well as security guards and out-of-jurisdiction police officers, to detain those believed to have committed a crime on their property – so long as they’re handed over to local authorities within an hour.

The proposed changes would not affect the state’s stand-your-ground law or any other legal protections for Georgians who seek to reasonably defend themselves from crimes committed against themselves or others, officials stressed at a news conference Tuesday.

“Our bill to overhaul the citizen’s arrest statute is a balanced approach to protecting the lives and livelihoods of ourselves, our friends [and] our neighbors, while also preventing rogue vigilante-ism from threatening the security and God-given potential of all Georgians,” said Gov. Brian Kemp.

Kemp, joined by more than a dozen top state lawmakers from both parties, called the state’s current Civil War-era citizen’s arrest law “an antiquated law that is ripe for abuse.”

He said the bill stems from the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man who was jogging in a neighborhood outside Brunswick on Feb. 23, 2020, when two white men who suspected him of robbing a nearby home under construction shot him dead while trying to detain him.

The two men, Travis and Gregory McMichael, were arrested months later after protests over police brutality and racial injustice swept across the country and drew attention to the lack of action in the case by coastal Georgia authorities. They have pleaded not guilty, citing the citizen’s arrest law.

Anger over Arbery’s death and protests over the killing of George Floyd by a police officer in Minnesota on May 25, 2020, convinced a bipartisan slate of Georgia lawmakers last June to pass legislation outlawing hate crimes in the state. The citizen’s arrest bill follows up on that measure, Kemp said.

“Like the anti-hate crimes legislation, reforming Georgia’s citizen’s arrest statute is first and foremost about who we are as a state,” Kemp said Tuesday. “In Georgia, we value lives … regardless of race, creed or culture.”

The bill comes as Democratic lawmakers push a wide-ranging package of criminal-justice reform proposals including bans on certain police tactics like no-knock warrants and chokeholds, citizen-led oversight of inquiries into officer-involved shootings and stronger standards for use-of-force training.

Republican lawmakers have taken a less-expansive approach to criminal justice this session, so far filing bills to ease employment challenges for people on probation and carrying out Kemp’s priority to crack down harder on human trafficking.

So far, Reeves’ measure on citizen’s arrests faces the best odds for passing in the Republican-controlled General Assembly, despite wariness by some Democratic leaders to accept the proposed legal protections for business owners to detain suspected criminals.

Rep. Calvin Smyre, D-Columbus, who is the legislature’s longest-serving member, sought to quell concerns from within his party Tuesday by assuring the bill has backing from criminal-justice advocates and has elicited “excitement” from Arbery’s family.

“I think we’re on pretty good footing,” Smyre said after the news conference. “We assured the [Arbery] family and those in Brunswick that citizen’s arrest would be our next move. … It would have been an abdication of our responsibility if we had not touched citizen’s arrest early on in this legislative session.”

The bill also has support from James Woodall, the president of Georgia’s chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, saying he “fully endorses” Reeves’ measure.

“We urge members of both parties and in both chambers to do the same,” Woodall said.