Public Safety

Linn County prosecutor warns 'citizen's arrest' is dangerous

Killing of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia generates national outrage

People rally May 8 to protest the shooting of Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed black man, in Brunswick, Ga. A father and son, w
People rally May 8 to protest the shooting of Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed black man, in Brunswick, Ga. A father and son, who are white, have been charged with murder in the February shooting death of Arbery, whom they had pursued in a truck after spotting him running in their neighborhood. (John Bazemore/Associated Press)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — Iowa and Georgia laws on citizen’s arrests are similar, but a Linn County prosecutor doesn’t recommend anyone take the law into his or her own hands as a Georgia father and son did when they chased and fatally shot a man they suspected of burglary.

“The citizen’s arrest statute is a relic,” First Assistant Linn County Attorney Nick Maybanks said. “It was passed in 1976. It was intended to be used in jurisdictions where response from police would be delayed. Now you can call 911 and get help quickly.”

Maybanks, who prosecutes some of Linn County’s most serious crimes, recommends no one attempt a citizen’s arrest “unless your personal safety or safety of another is at stake.”

And, he cautioned, Iowa’s citizen’s arrest law “doesn’t necessarily allow lethal force to be used.” Any time firearms are involved can lead to an “unnecessary deadly situation,” he said.

In Brunswick, Ga., Travis McMichael, 34, and his father, Gregory McMichael, 64, face murder charges in the Feb. 23 shooting of Ahmaud Arbery, 25.

State investigator say Arbery, who was black, was out for a jog in a neighborhood near where he lives when confronted by the father and son, who are white.

The case languished for months until a video of the shooting surfaced, leading to the May 7 arrest of the McMichaels and national outrage over racial inequalities in the justice system.

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The McMichaels have told authorities they suspected Arbery of neighborhood burglaries and shot him only after he tried to attack them.

Looking at the Georgia incident, Maybanks said he sees many “concerning” points.

The initial prosecutor in the case stepped aside. The second prosecutor, George Barnhill, also was going to recuse himself from the case — but before he did, wrote a letter to police defending the McMichaels for making the citizen’s arrest.

“If he was going to recuse himself from the case, he, as a prosecutor, shouldn’t comment on arrest and give an opinion. He makes a conclusion, instead of being objective,” Maybanks said. Barnhill “concluded that Arbery was the aggressor and determines the two men’s intent — to make a citizen’s arrest.”

But, Maybanks noted, “there doesn’t seem to be any evidence that Arbery committed a burglary.”

The father and son, both with firearms, were chasing Arbery, who was unarmed, as he jogged in a Brunswick neighborhood because they thought he was a suspect in neighborhood burglaries, according to news reports and the cellphone video released earlier this month. The video shows the two men confronting Arbery and then shooting him.

Public records obtained by the Brunswick News showed only one burglary in the neighborhood since January — the theft of a handgun from an unlocked truck parked outside Travis McMichael’s house.

Maybanks said that based on information that’s been released about the case, the McMichaels’ actions were “stretching” the private person arrest law in Georgia — similar to Iowa’s.

According to the Georgia law, which was adopted during the Civil War era in 1863, “a private person may arrest an offender if the offense is committed in his presence or within his immediate knowledge, the offense is a felony and the offender is escaping or attempting to escape ... upon reasonable and probable grounds of suspicion.”

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Iowa’s Chapter 804.9 states that a private person can make an arrest for a public offense committed or attempted in the person’s presence and/or when a felony has been committed and the person has reasonable grounds to believe the suspect committed it.

Maybanks said based on both those laws, a person making a citizen’s arrest would have to witness the crime or have “immediate knowledge” of it or “reasonable grounds” — in this case, like seeing someone inside a home going through belongings.

A burglary, however, isn’t a “death sentence” crime in Iowa or elsewhere, he said. So if someone suspects a person of stealing something and there’s no risk to his or her personal safety, he said, simply call police.

Maybanks recalled only one incident that could be interpreted as a citizen’s arrest in Linn County in the past five years. That happened when a resident caught someone breaking into his storage garage and held the person until police arrived.

But Maybanks said he doesn’t endorse citizens making arrests.

“It’s unpredictable how an event might turn out,” he said.

A new lead prosecutor was named last week in the Arbery case, and the Georgia Attorney General’s Office has asked the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to look into the actions of the two district attorneys who recused themselves and how they handled the case.

Comments: (319) 398-8318; trish.mehaffey@thegazette.com

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