by Kansas City Star Editorial Board
After the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man gunned down by three white men claiming they were making a citizen’s arrest, Georgia repealed its Civil War-era law.
Now Missouri lawmakers have a chance to add restrictions to its own citizen’s arrest law that allows a private person to detain someone they suspect had committed a felony. Conceivably, a Missouri citizen carrying a gun could shoot first and then tell police they thought their victim was going to rob someone.
Missouri Sen. Steven Roberts, a Democrat from St. Louis, has drafted legislation that would limit citizen’s arrests to merchants seeking to stop a shoplifter. The law would also allow a person to help police officers detain a suspect or when they witness someone attempting a class A felony, such as robbery, kidnapping or murder. Roberts plans to introduce the Ahmaud Arbery Act in the Senate Monday.
His legislation is modeled after Georgia’s new law that passed last year with a bipartisan vote.
Nearly every state in the country maintains citizen’s arrest laws, enacted in the slavery era and used to justify lynchings of African Americans. Many states are considering repealing these laws that generally allow a citizen to detain someone if they believe a crime was committed.
Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker supports “a tightening” of the common law in Missouri. Unrestricted scope for citizen’s arrest coupled with conceal and carry rights present “major dangers,” she said. That’s especially true in Missouri where people legally can walk around packing a weapon with minimal knowledge about state laws governing guns, self defense or the responsibilities that come with gun ownership.
Peters Baker described a possible scenario of a suspect robbing a convenience store and brandishing a weapon. A customer inside the store pulls his weapon. When police arrive, “They don’t know the good guy from the bad guy,” the prosecutor said, recalling an incident very much like this where the customer did not respond quickly to police commands and was shot.
The legislation would not prohibit people from defending themselves in life-threatening situations, said Roberts, the lawmaker. It is intended to “deter vigilantism in this era of partisan hatred,” he said. “My goal is to prevent an Ahmaud Arbery situation from happening here.”
Arbery’s killers tried to justify their attack under Georgia’s citizen’s arrest and self-defense laws, but jurors didn’t believe them.
“They probably expected to be heroes,” Peters Baker said, “That’s the problem,” with citizen arrest laws, she said. “You end up with three jokers who don’t know what they are doing, but they think they do.”
Greg McMichael, his son Travis and their neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan were convicted on several counts of murder and now face federal hate-crime charges for killing an innocent man because he was Black.
Yes, police are criticized for bad and unjustified action in response to crime. Sometimes they make mistakes or wrongfully act on their biases. And more and more, because of public pressure, they are prosecuted and sent to jail for their crimes.
Still, we agree with Jean Peters Baker that it’s best to let trained police officers respond to criminal activity and that Robert’s bill moves in the right direction. In most cases, the best course of action for citizens witnessing a crime is to “get out of the way, use your phone, and call police,” the prosecutor said. “That’s better than finding out later you’ve made a terrible mistake.”