The arrest of Gregory and Travis McMichaels in the death of Ahmaud Arbery has sparked an online debate between armies of armchair attorneys (including myself) over whether or not the McMichaels were acting lawfully when shot and killed Arbery after pursuing him through a neighborhood in Brunswick, Georgia on February 23rd. Tensions and emotions are running high, with Arbery’s father proclaiming that his son was the victim of a lynching, while others claim that videos showing Arbery inside an unfinished home in the neighborhood prove that the McDaniels were right to try to detain him, and that Arbery was shot in self-defense when he went for a shotgun held by Travis McMichaels.
On today’s Bearing Arms Cam & Co. we try to separate out rhetoric and reality, as well as going over some of the basics when it comes to legally acting in self-defense.
Generally speaking, you’re legally entitled to act in self-defense when you believe that your life or the life of another is in immediate danger of death or great bodily harm. If a suspected car thief is fleeing the scene of a crime, for instance, you don’t have the right to run them over to prevent escape, as is alleged to have happened late last month in south Florida.
The homeowner had just been burglarized the night before. Someone broke into his car and stole several items, including the vehicle’s keys and a gun.
After Friday night’s car break-in, the suspect apparently returned to the house on Southwest 228th Terrace at 5 a.m. the next day. Police say the homeowner, Ellis Georges, came outside after seeing the burglar trying to break into his car again through his doorbell camera.
The burglary suspect, 35-year-old Michael Rullo, then hopped on his scooter and drove off. Police say Georges chased after him in his car.
The pursuit ended less than a mile away on Southwest 232nd Street, which dead-ends where concrete barriers border the back of a Walgreens drug store. Miami-Dade police say Georges, 45, plowed his car into Rullo’s scooter, causing him to slam into the barriers.
Rullo died on the ground in between two of the barriers. One of the wheels of his scooter rested by his feet. The force of the crash appeared to have knocked one of his shoes off.
In this case, Ellis Georges is being charged with second degree murder. Georges had the right to pursue Rullo, but he didn’t have the right to run into him with his car, even if he was attempting to prevent Rullo from escaping and had no intention of harming him. Even Georges witnessing Rullo attempt to burgle his car doesn’t change the fact that he should have called police, reported Rullo’s description, and attempted to maintain visual contact with the suspect instead of trying to stop him from fleeing.
Even members of law enforcement can run afoul of the law if they try to detain someone without cause, as a now-former sheriff’s deputy in North Carolina learned after trying to force his way into a home while looking to question an individual about a 15-year old girl who’d been reported missing.
A New Hanover deputy has been fired and faces criminal charges for his role in what has been described as an armed “vigilante group” that attempted to force its way into the home of a Laney High student, Dameon Shepard.
The group came to his house looking for a Topsail High student who was somehow linked to a 15-year-old girl, reported missing around the same time of their arrival Sunday night. One man was armed and wearing a New Hanover County Sheriff’s uniform, who District Attorney Ben David said was related to the missing girl.
District Attorney Ben David announced that deputy, Jordan Kita (an employee at the New Hanover County detention facility), has been charged with forcible trespass, breaking and entering, and a willful failure to discharge his duties as an officer of the law.
David said he directed the Pender County Sheriff’s Office to file the criminal charges after a case review earlier Friday with approximately 10 prosecutors in his office.
Kita was fired due to the third charge of a willful failure to discharge his duties as a law enforcement officer.
Reading from the state statute regarding this violation, David said that Kita “willfully and corruptly [violated] an oath of office” and “committed offenses of misdemeanor breaking and entering and forcible trespass while armed and in uniform in a county that he was not duly sworn in, and in furtherance of personal, not law enforcement, purposes.”
In both of these cases, the arrested parties may have believed that they were simply trying to stop criminal activity, but they went beyond what the law allows and are now facing charges. According to Gregory and Travis McMichaels, they too were simply trying to stop Arbery, who they believed was responsible for burglaries in their neighborhood. Unfortunately for everyone involved, the McMichaels went beyond what the law allows and are now facing aggravated assault and murder charges.
Much of the debate online has now turned to the character of the suspects, as well as the victim. Arbery was no angel, argue critics of the decision to arrest and charge the father and son who killed him. He was caught on video surveillance in an unfinished home that was being built in the neighborhood, and Gregory McMichaels originally told police that he and his son began pursuing Arbery because they believed that he was responsible for several break-ins. Arbery also was charged with bringing a gun to a high school basketball game when he was 19, and was arrested for shoplifting in 2018.
Meanwhile, critics of the McMichaels have accused the pair of racism, claiming that they targeted the black man because of the color of his skin, hunting him through the Brunswick neighborhood before shooting and killing him in cold blood.
When it comes to the legal issues, however, none of that matters. Arbery could have been an Eagle Scout or a convicted felon. The McMichaels could have been the head of the local NAACP or the local KKK. None of those things change the facts about what happened on a sunny Sunday afternoon in February, and for the grand jury that will soon hear this case, the facts are all that matters.
According to the statement given to police by Gregory McMichaels, he decided to chase after Arbery when he spotted him running down the street. He yelled for his son to join him, the pair armed themselves, and hopped in Travis McMichaels’ truck.
In the report, McMichael says he and his son attempt to cut Arbery off at an intersection in the neighborhood where he is running, but they were “unsuccessful,” so they try to “intercept him” on another street. Eventually, they yell at him to stop, yelling that they “wanted to talk” to him.
In this video that was leaked Tuesday, Arbery can be seen jogging up a road with the McMichaels stopped ahead apparently waiting for him, each of them armed.
In the report, McMichael says his son Travis hopped out of the truck with his shotgun when Arbery wouldn’t stop as they asked. Then McMichael alleges that Arbery “violently” attacked Travis. However, in the video Arbery is seen swerving out of their way to avoid them, as he runs in a yard around their truck, but Travis follows him to the front of the truck with his shotgun and a fight over the gun ensues.
According to Georgia statutes on citizen’s arrests, McMichaels had no cause to try to stop Arbery and hold him for police.
A private person may arrest an offender if the offense is committed in his presence or within his immediate knowledge. If the offense is a felony and the offender is escaping or attempting to escape, a private person may arrest him upon reasonable and probable grounds of suspicion.
McMichaels may have suspected Arbery had been prowling around the neighborhood, but he didn’t catch him in the act of doing anything other than running down the street. There was no cause for the McMichaels to try to arrest or even detain Arbery, especially when they could have simply called 911 and followed Arbery at a distance until officers arrived. Some of the armchair attorneys I’ve encountered online claim that Arbery was attempting to escape, and a citizen’s arrest would have been justified, but read the statute closely. No offense was committed in McMichaels presence or his immediate knowledge. He may have had his suspicions about Arbery, but he had no evidence that afternoon that Arbery had committed a felony offense.
What about the shooting itself? Even if the McMichaels had no basis to make a citizen’s arrest, wasn’t Travis McMichaels acting in self-defense when he shot Arbery? After all, there was a struggle for McMichaels’ shotgun. If Travis McMichaels was in fear for his life, didn’t he have the right to shoot?
In a word, no. Gregory and Travis McMichaels were the aggressors here, and police have charged them not only with murder for the death of Ahmaud Arbery, but with aggravated assault for their actions leading up to the shooting. You can’t act in self-defense in the midst of committing a violent crime.
Consider this example: a guy with a gun walks into a convenience store and points it at the clerk. The clerk, in fear for their life, tries to wrestle the gun away from the armed man. The armed man, now fearing that clerk will shoot him if they get ahold of the gun, shoots and kills the clerk instead. That’s not self-defense, at least not on the part of the guy with the gun. Instead it was the clerk who had a reasonable belief that his life was in danger.
The same holds true in the Arbery case. The McMichaels weren’t in fear of their lives because of Arbery. If they were, they wouldn’t have pursued him through the neighborhood, attempting on multiple occasions to “intercept him” so they could ask him a few questions. It was Arbery who had cause to be concerned for his safety, because he was being pursued through a neighborhood by armed men who eventually cut him off and confronted him. Gregory McMichaels originally told police that he and his son “pulled up beside” Arbery and shouted at him to stop, but the video shot by William Roddie Bryan shows that the pair had actually pulled in front of Arbery and were waiting for him.
McMichaels claims that his son Travis exited the truck after Arbery ran up alongside the vehicle, but the video shows that Travis McMichaels was already outside of the vehicle, shotgun in hand, as Arbery approached. In fact, Travis McMichaels is standing in the left lane of the road with his shotgun and his truck, with his armed father in the bed, is blocking the right lane. Arbery clearly tries to avoid McMichaels by running around the right side of the truck, but McMichaels approaches the front of the truck and faces Arbery at the same time Arbery is running by it. Arbery then veers towards Travis McMichaels as a shot is fired. The pair then wrestle for the gun and Arbery is shot twice more before he turns to run and falls to the street.
The McMichaels were within the law to follow Arbery, but once they tried to detain him they crossed over from law-abiding to law-breaking. Even when Arbery attempted to grab McMichaels’ shotgun, McMichaels was by that time the aggressor in the eyes of the law, and Arbery was the victim.
Arbery’s previous run-ins with the law are irrelevant to this case, as is whether or not the McMichaels are racists. What happened on the night of February 22nd is immaterial. What happened on the afternoon of February 23rd is not. The facts in this case are pretty clear, which is why the Georgia Bureau of Investigation found probable cause to arrest Gregory and Travis McMichaels within two days of opening up their investigation. Ignore the shouting from online influencers and those more interested in advancing a narrative (on both sides), stick to the facts, and it’s clear that the death of Ahmaud Arbery wasn’t self-defense, and would never have happened if the McMichaels had simply called police and reported Arbery’s location to them.