CBS Law Blog

It Can Happen Here Too: Ahmaud Arbery, Citizen Arrests, and California Law

Posted on May 06, 2020

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By now you’ve probably heard of the shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery. According to news reports, Mr. Arbery was jogging through a small town in southeastern Georgia when two men, a father and son, confronted and fatally shot him on the side of the road. While the circumstances of the confrontation weren’t immediately known, the fact that Mr. Arbery was black and his assailants were white was not lost on local residents.

Initial reports of the shooting stated that the father and son believed Mr. Arbery was a suspect in recent burglaries around the small town. According to the father’s statement to police after the shooting, the father and son armed themselves with a pistol and rifle, hopped in their pickup truck, and tracked down Mr. Arbery. Allegedly acting under Georgia’s citizen arrest law, the two men tried to question Mr. Arbery when, according to the father, Mr. Arbery attacked them. During this struggle, the father and son fatally shot Mr. Arbery, purportedly in self-defense.

Now, however, a video of the confrontation has surfaced and it contradicts the father’s statements to police. The video appears to show the father and son pulled their pick up truck in front of a jogging Mr. Arbery. The father hopped outside of the truck holding a rifle while his son stood in the truck’s bed holding a pistol. As Mr. Arbery jogged up to the truck, he attempted to run around it. However, just as Mr. Arbery runs past the truck, the father confronts him and both men struggle over control of the rifle. Amidst the sounds of gunshots, Mr. Arbery stumbles away and collapses.

California’s Citizen Arrest Law Sure Looks Similar to Georgia’s

While it’s clear race was a major factor in the shooting, Georgia’s citizen arrest law initially provided local prosecutors the legal wax needed to apply a misleading gloss of legality to the shooting. Given the language of California’s citizen arrest law, it is not hard to imagine a similar miscarriage of justice happening here.

In California, a private citizen may arrest another person when:
(1) the private citizen witnesses someone commit a “public offense;”
(2) the person arrested has committed a felony, even if the private citizen did not see it; or
(3) a felony has been committed, and the private citizen has “reasonable cause” to believe the person arrested has committed it.

Now compare California’s citizen arrest law to Georgia’s. In Georgia, a private citizen may arrest another person when:
(1) an offense is committed in the private person’s presence or within their “immediate knowledge” (whatever that means); or
(2) a felony is committed, the offender is escaping or attempting to escape, and the private citizen acts upon “reasonable and probable grounds of suspicion.”

In other words, in both California and Georgia, whenever a private citizen has “reasonable grounds” to believe someone committed a felony, they can arrest that person – even if they didn’t witness the alleged crime! And while “reasonable grounds” may sound good on paper, it is often misapplied by individuals performing very unreasonable actions like the father and son duo here.

California’s citizen arrest law may have made sense back in 1872 when it was written, but in 2020 it is asking for trouble. Given the long history of racial tensions in California, the prevalence of deadly weapons, and the ambiguity of what constitutes “reasonable cause”, events like the tragic death of Mr. Arbery are bound to happen in California. Let’s hope this outdated law is changed before it happens again.

UPDATE: The third prosecutor on the case has just announced that charges against the father and son will be presented to a grand jury for possible indictment (stay tuned for a future blog post explaining what a grand jury is and why prosecutors like to use them).

As always, contact CBS Law for a free consultation if you have any questions about your case.

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