As expected, the current law governing citizen’s arrests was significantly altered by the General Assembly.

HB 479 will repeal the portion of the law that allows a private person to arrest someone if that person witnessed, or was told about, a crime, or if someone suspected of committing a felony is trying to escape.

There are some exceptions for business owners who can briefly detain people on “reasonable grounds” if they are suspected of shoplifting or other thefts until police can arrive.  Other exceptions apply to licensed private detectives and security guards.

However, the bill makes it clear that only law enforcement officers have arrest powers.

Rep. Bert Reeves, R-Marietta spearheaded the effort to make HB 479 become state law.  The House passed the measure 173-0.

 “It’s just unbelievable. I never would’ve predicted that we would receive that kind of support and I think that it’s just–makes me feel great because I think we were able to make people understand the difference between self-defense and citizen’s arrest and why we do not need citizen’s arrest,” said Reeves. 

He also said the most touching part of the process was talking with the mother of Ahmaud Arbery as he worked on this legislation. On February 23, 2020, 25 year old Arbery was pursued and fatally shot while jogging near Brunswick in Glynn County, Georgia.  

“As anybody can imagine, she’s hurt and just in tremendous pain, but she has been so gracious with the work that we’ve done here on this in his honor and in his legacy and I hope that this is the agent of change that can change some things in Georgia and I’m just really, really glad that we got this done and I don’t know that I’ve ever done, worked on anything down here that I’m more proud of than this,” said Reeves.

After some tweaking, the Senate passed the bill 52-1.  The lone nay vote was cast by Sen. Frank Ginn, R-Danielsville. 

Brian Kemp will sign the bill.  But, did the General Assembly do the right thing?

Yes.  Here is why.

While HB 479 will affect a number of current laws, O.C.G.A. 17-4-60 and O.C.G.A. 17-4-61 are the targets.  These very broad statutes provide: 

O.C.G.A. 17-4-60 – “A private person may arrest an offender if the offense is committed in his presence or within his immediate knowledge. If the offense is a felony and the offender is escaping or attempting to escape, a private person may arrest him upon reasonable and probable grounds of suspicion.

O.C.G.A. 17-4-61(a) further provides for the private person who makes an arrest shall, without any unnecessary delay, take the person arrested before a judicial officer, or deliver the person and all effects removed from him to a peace officer of this state.

Even though I have not handled nor heard of a case in west Georgia in 18 years of criminal law practice where a private citizen made an arrest, HB 479 is needed for several reasons.  Four of these include:

1.  Law enforcement officers have the training to effectuate an arrest. The vast majority of citizens do not.  If an officer makes an arrest in an illegal manner, that issue can be properly addressed in court;

2.  The above statutes assume that all private citizens obtain accurate information from a third party, know which alleged crimes are felonies, know how to take a person before a judge, and know how to find a police officer to “deliver” the arrestee to;

3. Because of the brevity and broadness of the statutes, it is unclear whether a person has the legal authority to even make an arrest; and

4.  Our current law is just dangerous.  The tragic death of Mr. Arbery is conclusive evidence of this danger.

I would like to thank the General Assembly for passing HB 479.  When common sense guides the task of lawmaking, rather than petty partisan bickering, the people of this state win every time.