St. Louis lawmaker proposes ‘Ahmaud Arbery Act’ to prevent vigilante violence disguised as citizen’s arrests

The bill is a response to the self-defense argument made by two of Arbery's killers

A St. Louis lawmaker is proposing a new act that prohibits “a private person’s right to make an arrest as it existed under the common law of this state,” according to the St. Louis PostDispatch.

State Senator Steve Roberts (D-St. Louis) hopes the Ahmaud Arbery Act, SB 1131, will prevent murder in Missouri from being disguised as self-defense, especially during a citizen’s arrest.

“The focus is to deter a situation where you’ve got someone, in essence, being hunted down,” Roberts said in an interview with the Missouri Times

This bill is also a response to the controversial act SB 666 – PRESUMPTION OF REASONABLENESS bill, introduced in February this year. The bill attempted to strengthen Missouri’s ‘Stand Your Ground law.’ It was defeated in a bipartisan effort, inspiring the senator to introduce the new legislation “to take proactive measures to make sure that we discourage vigilantism,” per the Missouri Times.

This initiative targets the self-defense argument made by two of Arbery’s killers who claimed it was within their legal right to make a citizen’s arrest, as articulated in Georgia’s laws. 

Arbery was killed while on a jog in February 2020. On June 24, 2020 — some four months after his death, and only after pressure from his family and the media — the grand jury indicted the three men who were eventually convicted for his murder, theGrio previously reported.

A demonstrator holds a sign at the Glynn County Courthouse in Oct. 2021(Photo: Sean Rayford/Getty Images)

Arbery’s murder has prompted wide-ranging legal shifts around self-defense and ‘Stand Your Ground’ laws, one of the most significant being Georgia House bill H.B. 479, which bans bystanders and witnesses from making arrests. The new law, signed by Governor Brian Kemp (R-Georgia) on May 10 after a unanimous vote, replaced laws on the books since 1863.

“Today we are replacing a Civil War-era law, ripe for abuse, with language that balances the sacred right to self-defense of a person and property with our shared responsibility to root out injustice and set our state on a better path forward,” Kemp said, as reported by NPR.

In this Nov. 2021 photo, a woman wears buttons featuring Ahmaud Arbery and John Lewis. (Photo: Sean Rayford/Getty Images)

Despite the progress, Sen. Roberts insists that incidents of murder are often mischaracterized in Missouri, citing a ProPublica investigation into how St. Louis used questionable methods to reduce its number of murders while similar-sized cities saw an increase.

“St. Louis has quietly lowered its murder count in another way: classifying more than three dozen killings as what are termed justifiable homicides, sometimes in apparent violation of FBI guidelines for reporting crimes, a ProPublica/APM Reports investigation found.”

The new bill is designed to allow those private citizens authorized by law enforcement or store employees who have “reasonable grounds” and believe merchandise has been stolen to make arrests. It also places limits on when deadly force can be used, causing pushback by some committee members who were concerned it would restrict a citizen’s ability to stop a violent actor.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports Missouri State Senator Tony Luetkemeyer (R-Parkville) suggested the bill is only suited for 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?”

Those supporting the bill countered the argument by highlighting the risks of citizens trying to arrest dangerous criminals.

“[We] 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,” said Sharon Jones of the Missouri State Conference of the NAACP.

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