How Lawyers in the Arbery Murder Trial Will Try to Cite Citizen’s Arrest Law

Lawyers are expected to argue that when Ahmaud Arbery was killed, the men accused of murder were trying to make a citizen’s arrest permitted under state law.

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Lawyers for the three accused killers are expected to cite a citizen’s arrest law.

Two defense attorneys, Franklin Hogue and Robert Rubin, during jury selection in the murder trial of Gregory McMichael, Travis McMichael and William Bryan.Credit…Octavio Jones/Reuters

Nov. 5, 2021, 11:33 a.m. ET

Lawyers for the three men accused of murdering Ahmaud Arbery are expected to argue that when Mr. Arbery was killed, the men were trying to make a citizen’s arrest permitted under state law.

The law in question had existed in Georgia since 1863 and was partly repealed after Mr. Arbery was killed. It allowed residents to arrest each other if they had reasonable suspicion that someone had committed a felony and the police were not present.

The defendants have said they thought Mr. Arbery was guilty of burglaries in the area when they chased him. No evidence has been produced to show that to be true.

The jury will have to consider if the men reasonably suspected that Mr. Arbery had committed a felony.

These kinds of laws exist in many states, but they are not uniform. Similar to “stand your ground” and “castle doctrine” laws that allow people to use force to protect themselves or their homes, citizen’s arrest laws have come to national attention over the years. Critics argue that they enable people to act out of pre-existing biases and help foment environments where extrajudicial killings happen.

“This is based on racism,” said Ira P. Robbins, a law professor at American University who wrote an academic paper on the issue. “You look at the Georgia law, for example. This is a law that was used for white people to help catch escaping slaves. There is a close connection between citizen’s arrest laws in the South and lynchings.”

Among the criticisms of these kinds of laws is the belief that ordinary citizens are not well-versed in the complexities of the law when they take things into their own hands. “It’s scary because it allows for vigilante injustice,” Mr. Robbins said.

Georgia lawmakers partly dismantled the citizen’s arrest law last spring in response to Mr. Arbery’s killing, repealing the portion of the law that allowed a private person to arrest someone if that person witnessed — or was told about — a crime, or if someone suspected of committing a felony was trying to escape. The legislation carved out some exceptions for business owners, who can detain people on “reasonable grounds” if they are suspected of shoplifting or other thefts. Other exceptions apply to licensed private detectives and security guards.

Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican, called the former statute “an antiquated law that is ripe for abuse.”

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