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The Citizen’s Arrest Law Cited in Arbery’s Killing Dates Back to the Civil War

The Law Office of Lawrence J. Zimmerman

After Ahmaud Arbery was shot dead by two white men on a quiet residential road in coastal Georgia, a prosecutor cited a Civil War era state law to justify the killing.

The same law was invoked last year in suburban Atlanta after a white woman chased down a black man who left the scene of a car accident and killed him after starting a confrontation.

Since 1863, Georgia has allowed its residents to arrest one another — if they have witnessed a crime and the police are not around. Similar laws exist in nearly every state, and have been raised in courtrooms over the decades to account for actions in a range of criminal cases, including assaults and murders.

But after Mr. Arbery’s death, a growing chorus of critics are calling for the laws to be repealed. They say the laws are outdated, relics of the Wild West, and are ripe for abuse by untrained civilians in an age in which 911 is widely available and police response times are generally within minutes….

In the killing of Mr. Arbery, someone called 911 beforehand to say that a man was inside a house under construction. If that man was Mr. Arbery, and he was there without permission but stole nothing, then he could have been charged with trespassing, a misdemeanor, said Lawrence J. Zimmerman, the president of the Georgia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. That means, Mr. Zimmerman said, the men who went after him would not have been authorized to give chase,

Force can only be used to prevent a violent felony, Mr. Zimmerman said, adding, “What is not lawful is, you can’t detain somebody and then use force.”

But a person making a citizen’s arrest who is then attacked could try to claim self-defense, he said, as the McMichaels have claimed — although it would not necessarily be successful.

On Tuesday, Georgia lawmakers said they would move forward with proposals to strip that protection from state law.

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