Georgia lawmaker’s bill would end citizen’s arrests but allows citizen detainment

A Georgia lawmaker is proposing a bill that would end the practice of citizen’s arrests in Georgia, but the proposed law would still allow private citizens to detain people.

State Representative Jeff Jones, a republican from Brunswick, today announced his plans to introduce the “Citizens Detainment Act,” legislation which would amend Georgia’s citizen’s arrest law. The proposed legislation would remove arrest powers from citizens, leaving such powers to law enforcement officers. It would also address the use of force during a lawful citizen’s detainment, as well as allow individuals to resist an unauthorized citizen’s detainment.

“The goal of any law that provides authority to a private citizen to detain another private citizen who is suspected of committing a crime is to give time for law enforcement to respond to the scene and take charge,” said Jones. “Such law must make it abundantly clear that a true ‘arrest’ should only be performed by law enforcement officers. The Citizens Detainment Act is not intended to deputize citizens and not be meant to waive, grant blanket immunity or interfere with Georgia’s criminal code or tort laws. Citizens would only have limited immunity when the citizen invoking the Citizens Detainment Act is acting entirely appropriately within the law. With today’s technology and with virtually everyone having a cell phone that can be used to call 911, take pictures or video and with GPS location of 911 calls, there should rarely be the need for citizens to use deadly force to make a detainment. The new Citizens Detainment Act clearly defines when such instances are allowed under Georgia code, but use of deadly force will be severely restricted.”

Under the Citizens Detainment Act, private citizens would be able to detain an offender only if the offense is witnessed by a private citizen, if the offense is committed within the citizen’s immediate knowledge or following existing probable cause statutes.

Why it Matters: The shooting of Ahmaud Arbery occurred after what the suspects claimed was an attempt at a citizen’s arrest. Since the killing of Arbery, residents have called for an end to the practice in Georgia.

“To clarify, ‘Immediate Knowledge’ means that, for instance, if a private citizen sees a flash of flames through the windows of a neighbor’s house and the citizen sees a person whom they do not recognize run out the front door with a gas can, the citizen would probably be justified, if they chose to do so, to try and stop or ‘detain’ that person,” added Jones. “Such detention would be allowed until the circumstances could be figured out and until law enforcement could be summoned and arrive on scene to take charge.  While the citizen did not see the arson, they had a pretty good idea that it happened. This is what is meant by ‘immediate knowledge.’”

The legislation would also clarify that use of force during a citizen’s detainment is allowed only if such force is necessary to effectuate the detention. Deadly force would only be permitted under very explicit and specific circumstances, including to prevent the death or bodily injury to such private citizen, third person or to prevent the commission of a “forcible felony.”  Forcible felony is defined in Georgia code as any felony that involves the use or threat of physical force or violence against any person [Georgia Code Section 16-1-3].

“It is very important that use of deadly force cannot be used for property crimes, such as for stealing personal property,” said Jones. “A personal property theft is allegedly what the citizens who were purportedly attempting to detain Ahmaud Arbery suspected Ahmaud to be guilty of. We do not want anyone to be harmed, injured or killed for suspected theft of a piece of personal property. Human life is too precious.”

Additionally, individuals would be able to resist an unauthorized citizen’s detainment using only a degree of force that it is necessary to resist unlawful detainment. Finally, the legislation would not provide citizens with immunity from civil liability or criminal prosecution if a citizen’s detainment is performed unlawfully.

“While our civil society does not encourage a self-defense shootout, a private citizen has the right to protect and defend themselves if someone is attempting to detain them illegally, with force,” said Jones. “As a civil society, a society made up of laws intended to protect everyone, we expect every citizen to follow the law and not use the law as an excuse to become law enforcement, judge and jury. To do so is totally unacceptable in our society.”

Jones began working on this legislation after the video detailing Ahmaud Arbery’s death was made public. He has sought the counsel of area attorneys who specialize in this type of law, including an attorney who serves on the City of Jacksonville, Florida’s Human Rights Commission. Rep. Jones is also consulting with the Georgia Council of Prosecuting Attorneys to craft the legislation.

Through the Citizens Detainment Act, Jones said he seeks to address the nature of citizen’s arrests, the use of deadly force during a citizen’s detainment and to make it clear that a citizen’s right to use deadly force in invoking the Citizens Detainment Act is to be strictly limited and rarely allowed to be used. However, he said he does not intend to restrict the rights of citizens to protect themselves if they feel they are in danger or their life is being threatened.

Photo Credit: A new mural of Ahmaud Arbery by Marvin Weeks greeted people arriving by caravan from Atlanta Saturday to protest the lack of arrests in months following the February slaying of the unarmed black jogger. Wes Wolfe/Georgia Recorder

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