Georgia state Rep. Ed Setzler, R-Acworth
(The Center Square) – Georgia lawmakers held the first of a series of committee meetings Monday to review the state’s citizen’s arrest law, which is facing scrutiny after the death of Ahmaud Arbery, a black man killed after being suspected of a burglary.
One House member, however, said including race in a discussion about the law “trivializes” the topic.
Georgia law allows a civilian to arrest someone if he or she witnesses a crime or has “immediate knowledge” the offender has committed one. If the crime is a felony and the suspect attempts to escape, the law also allows any person to detain a suspect.
Civil rights organizations and criminal justice reform advocates have called on the General Assembly to repeal the law.
Waycross prosecutor George Barnhill cited it as a reason not to pursue charges in February against the father-and-son duo of Gregory and Travis McMichael after the pair was caught on video following Arbery, who was jogging in a neighborhood near Brunswick. Travis McMichael shot and killed Arbery after a confrontation.
Representatives from the NAACP and American Civil Liberties Union told the members of the House Judiciary Non-Civil Committee on Monday the law has a dark past that could resurrect with justice in the hands of an untrained citizen.
“We are connected to the racist underpinnings of the legislative intent of this provision, the statutory vagueness that facilitates continued racial violence in the complete lack of accountability surrounding citizen’s arrest,” Georgia NAACP State President Rev. James Woodall said.
Woodall said the law was used to punish fleeing slaves and to justify sexual violence and the lynching of Black people in the pre-civil rights era.
The state’s laws were codified by 1861 by an attorney who died fighting against slavery during the Civil War in 1862, according to research.
According to lynching database the Mary Turner Project, 454 Black people were lynched in Georgia between July 29, 1880, and April 28, 1930.
Woodall said the measure indirectly authorizes the use of force, and that could create a recipe for disaster when fear and negative stereotypes are combined.
The McMichaels told police they were tracking Arbery after they spotted him on a construction site after a string of robberies in the Satilla Shores neighborhood, near Brunswick.
The Georgia Bureau of Investigation concluded, however, the suspects never saw Arbery commit a crime. The district attorney, Barnhill, later recused himself from the case, and both McMichaels now are facing murder and aggravated assault charges.
“Literally the moment his last breath was taken, he was called an effing explicit or racial epithet,” Woodall said. “To look at Georgia history of how many Black people whose lives have been taken invoking this statute. To ignore that, I think would be an injustice.”
Rep. Ed Setzler, R-Acworth, condemned Woodall for his comments.
Setzler said the implication of race in the discussion is offensive and minimizes the “real issues.”
“I encourage you to go to the root of the issues and not make wild claims that you have – I believe trivialize the issues that are at play,” Setzler said. “And I’ll ask you to do better next time.”