Legislation & Lobbying

Laws said to encourage vigilante justice still in effect in most states

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Laws that permit citizens arrests or entitle citizens to stand their ground have been blamed for vigilante shootings and tragic consequences. Yet many states still have them on the books.

An opponent of citizens arrest laws is Ira Robbins, a professor at the American University Washington College of Law.

“We are in a period of vigilante justice,” he told the Washington Post. “And frankly, when you have vigilante justice, what it ends up being is vigilante injustice.”

Georgia narrowed its citizens arrest law after three white men were charged in the 2020 shooting death of Black jogger Ahmaud Arbery, whom they thought was involved in the burglary of a home under construction, according to the Washington Post. Their trial is ongoing following jury selection last week.

The revised Georgia law bans most arrests by private citizens. But business owners can detain people if there are reasonable grounds to think that an arrestee was shoplifting. Off-duty police officers are also allowed to detain people under the law.

Other efforts to reform citizens arrest laws failed following charges in the Arbery case, according to the Washington Post. One example is in South Carolina, where a reform citizens arrest measure didn’t make it out of committee.

The South Carolina law still in place allows citizens to arrest a felon or a thief and take the arrestee to a judge if the arresting citizens see the theft or felony or if they have information that a felony has been committed.

Citizens arrests are also allowed in some circumstances “in the nighttime by efficient means as the darkness and the probability of escape render necessary, even if the life of the person should be taken.”

The circumstances include situations in which a person commits a felony, possesses stolen property, enters a home without permission or breaks “into an outhouse with a view to plunder.”

No state, including Georgia, has repealed a stand-your-ground law since Arbery’s death, according to the Washington Post. The law in Georgia provides that a person who is not the aggressor doesn’t have to retreat before using potentially deadly force if they reasonably think that it is needed to prevent death, serious injury or a forcible felony.

Ohio and Arkansas, meanwhile, approved expanded stand-your-ground laws earlier this year. In Ohio, for example, people can use lethal force in self-defense, without any duty to retreat, in any place where they have a lawful right to be, rather than just at home or in their car, according to prior coverage by the Associated Press.

Michael Weinman, director of governmental affairs for the Fraternal Order of Police in Ohio, opposed the new stand-your-ground law. Adding to his worries is a proposal to allow most people in Ohio to carry concealed firearms without training or a background check.

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