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Missouri lawmaker’s ‘Ahmaud Arbery Act’ would place limits on citizen’s arrests

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JEFFERSON CITY — A St. Louis lawmaker is seeking to honor the memory of a Georgia man who was the victim of vigilante violence and prevent similar cases from occurring here by placing limits on Missouri’s citizen’s arrest laws.

The “Ahmaud Arbery Act,” named for the 25-year-old Black man whose case drew national attention in 2020 after he was chased down and killed by three white men, was heard in a Senate committee Monday afternoon.

Sponsored by Sen. Steve Roberts, D-St. Louis, the measure would repeal “a private person’s right to make an arrest as it existed under the common law of this state,” a legal protection that played a role in Arbery’s murder.

Sen. Steve Roberts

Sen. Steve Roberts, D-St. Louis (Photo by Tim Bommel/House Communications)

“By passing the ‘Ahmaud Arbery Act,’ Missouri can demonstrate to vigilantes that it doesn’t tolerate any person taking the law into their own hands,” Roberts said.

Two of the men charged with Arbery’s murder used Georgia’s private citizen arrest law to justify their actions, claiming to have armed themselves and followed Arbery in an attempt to detain him as a suspect in several burglaries.

The district attorney originally cited the law in deciding not to charge the pair. But following national outcry, three men were charged and convicted of murder.

Georgia repealed the citizen’s arrest law with bipartisan support, with the Republican governor calling it “an antiquated law that is ripe for abuse.”

In Missouri, cases of citizen’s arrests gone wrong like Arbery’s are regularly occurring, just slipping under public scrutiny, Roberts said during the hearing. Roberts cited a recent ProPublica investigation of homicides deemed “justifiable” in St. Louis, recalling a case in which Jason Dudley was shot after a man suspected him of stealing his car.

“Dudley had no idea who this vigilante was,” Roberts said. “He wasn’t a uniformed officer. This man to him was a stranger with a gun approaching him on the street. Had officers been present instead of an individual taking the law into their own hands, it’s likely a life would have been saved.”

Roberts’ bill makes exceptions for private citizens who are authorized by a law enforcement officer to make an arrest or store employees who have “reasonable grounds” to believe an individual is stealing merchandise. An authorized citizen would be required to transfer the suspect to the custody of law enforcement “within a reasonable time” and with any confiscated belongings.

The measure also limits when private citizens authorized to make an arrest are justified in using deadly force, requiring law enforcement authorization and specific circumstances.

Several committee members took issue with the deadly force limitations, questioning whether the limits would penalize a person trying to stop a violent offender from potentially hurting others.

Sen. Tony Luetkemeyer, R-Parkville, said the bill might be better suited to only ban misdemeanor arrests.

“With dangerous felonies, murders committed in your presence — we’re eliminating citizen’s arrest in all these circumstances under current state law to deal with the circumstance in Georgia,” Luetkemeyer said. “Doesn’t it seem like we’re going a bit too far? Overreacting?”

Proponents of the legislation noted the danger of encouraging people to try to arrest a violent offender but also acknowledged room to work out the bill’s language.

“I hear what you’re saying — we don’t want people to just turn a blind eye to crimes happening in their presence, especially if they’re violent crimes,” said Sharon Jones of the Missouri State Conference of the NAACP. “But we also want people to understand their responsibility is not to take the law into their own hands. Their responsibility is to contact trained and equipped law enforcement officers.”

The legislation is Senate Bill 1131.

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