Criminal Justice

Critics call for repeal of citizens arrest laws, cited as justification in killing of Ahmaud Arbery

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Critics are calling for the repeal of citizens arrest laws that allow people to take the law into their own hands, causing dangerous situations and sometimes leading to assaults and killings.

Citizens arrest laws exist in nearly every state, although the details differ, the New York Times reports.

Some states permit citizens arrests for felonies only, while others also allow them for misdemeanors or a breach of the peace, according to research by Ira Robbins, a law professor at the American University’s Washington College of Law.

Some require the person making the arrest to witness the crime; others do not. The laws also differ on the level or probable cause needed to make a citizens arrest and how long the citizen may detain the suspect.

A prosecutor who reviewed the killing of Georgia black jogger Ahmaud Arbery had opined that Arbery’s alleged killers should not be held responsible for his death because they were acting under Georgia’s citizens arrest law. The prosecutor, who later recused himself, said the two men had probable cause to think that Arbery was a burglary suspect.

Someone had called 911 to report a man inside a home under construction before the two men, Gregory McMichael and his son, Travis McMichael, confronted Arbery.

The McMichaels were charged with murder and aggravated assault last week after the Georgia Bureau of Investigation took over the case. The men said they were acting in self-defense because Arbery attacked them.

A video showed that the men had parked their truck in the middle of the street as Arbery approached. Arbery circled around the truck then encountered one of the men holding a rifle. The two men tussled. Shots could be heard.

Georgia has allowed citizens arrests since 1863. The current version of the law allows a citizens arrest if a crime is committed in a citizen’s presence or within the citizen’s “immediate knowledge.” If the crime is a felony and the offender is escaping, the citizen can stop someone with “reasonable and probable grounds of suspicion.”

Lawrence Zimmerman, the president of the Georgia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, spoke with the New York Times about the law’s impact in the Arbery case. If Arbery was inside the home but took nothing, he committed only a misdemeanor, and the law did not permit the McMichaels to give chase, Zimmerman said.

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