Gov. Brian Kemp hugs Wanda Cooper-Jones. mother of Ahmaud Arbery

Gov. Brian Kemp hugs Wanda Cooper-Jones. mother of Ahmaud Arbery.

Credit: GPB screen shot

Gov. Brian Kemp signed legislation Monday overhauling Georgia’s citizen’s arrest law to greatly limit who can detain criminal suspects beyond on-duty police officers.

Enactment of the bill sponsored by former state Rep. Bert Reeves, R-Marietta, marks the most high-profile bill on criminal justice to clear the 2021 legislative session following last summer’s nationwide protests against police brutality and racial injustice.

It came in response to the killing last year of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man gunned down while jogging near Brunswick during an altercation with three white men who said they believed he had burglarized a home under construction. Father and son Gregory and Travis McMichael, and William “Roddie” Bryan claimed they were making a citizen’s arrest and pleaded not guilty.

At a bill-signing ceremony attended by members of Arbery’s family, Kemp said the broad overhaul of Georgia’s outdated citizen’s arrest law takes the state another step toward righting wounds of injustice even though “the stroke of a pen cannot bring back what you have lost.”

“Today we are replacing a Civil War-era law ripe for abuse with language that balances the sacred right to self-defense of a person and property with our shared responsibility to root out injustice and set our state on a better path forward,” Kemp said.

Under the bill, owners of Georgia businesses including retail stores and restaurants can still detain shoplifters and other thieves on their premises, as long as they hand those persons over to police officers “within a reasonable time.”

The overhauled law will also allow police officers who are off duty or outside their jurisdiction to make arrests if they witness a crime or have knowledge a crime was recently committed.

Additionally, it will not affect existing self-defense and stand-your-ground laws in Georgia that allow people to defend themselves, their property and others from threats of violence or deadly force.

Reeves’ bill passed in the General Assembly with near-unanimous support from both chambers, marking the 2021 session’s most resounding bipartisan success as Republican and Democratic lawmakers split over other contentious legislation on elections and police budgets.

The bill also followed Kemp’s signing last June of landmark hate-crimes legislation that aims to protect people in the Peach State from acts of violence or property damage perpetrated because of the victim’s race, sex or gender.

Jury selection in the state trial of the two McMichael men and Bryan is set to begin in October. They face federal hate-crimes and kidnapping charges along with state charges including malice murder, felony murder, aggravated assault, false imprisonment and criminal attempt to commit a felony.

This story comes to GPB through a reporting partnership with Capitol Beat News Service.