Ahmaud Arbery’s Death: The Tragic Four-Minute “Citizens Arrest” Chase (revised 5.26.20)

This post centers on Gregory McMichael, Travis McMichael, and William Bryan’s apparent four-minute vehicle chase in Georgia that ended in the tragic death of Ahmaud Arbery; and, in my opinion, that fails to any extent to fall within Georgia’s “citizens arrest” statute. I will soon write a second blog post with more details about the inapplicability of this citizens arrest statute.

My underpinning for today’s blog post is a recent May 16, 2020 video in the web version of the New York Times, captioned “Ahmaud Arbery’s Final Minutes: What Videos and 911 Calls Show”. Click here for a link to this NYT video. This video is a reconstruction of the 12 minutes prior to Arbery’s death, based on the construction site security camera, cell phone information, and 911 call data.

Below are the points I wish to make with this blog post.

One. This NYT video shows, quite shockingly and extremely painfully, how Ahmaud Arbery apparently was chased by one vehicle driven by Gregory and Travis McMichael, and by a second vehicle driven by William Bryan, before being trapped by all three men and ending with Arbery’s tragic death.

More specifically, the McMichaels and Bryan appear — in this NYT video reconstruction for a period of approximately four minutes — to have used their two vehicles to chase and trap Arbery. Arbery — running on foot from the two vehicles — apparently changed his direction twice in unsuccessfully avoiding getting overtaken and trapped. This apparent four-minute vehicle chase is not information I was aware of until seeing this NYT video.

What also jumped out to me powerfully from this video is that the McMichaels and Bryan appear to have twice turned their vehicles around along the roadway in their ongoing four-minute trapping of Arbery. The first of two reversals by the McMichaels is when Gregory McMichael apparently jumped from his truck cab into the bed of his truck and began wielding a .357 handgun as the chase for Arbery continued. In this NYT video William Bryan was apparently the first in this chase to reverse the direction of his vehicle as he continued to pursue Arbery, followed with a similar reversal by the McMichaels.

Two. My second point here is my own subjective perspective. It stems from my having lived in Atlanta my entire life. And, my observation in Georgia of the still-present deep level of racial prejudice, especially by many in the age 60+ range. And, no better than the overt racial views I observed in Georgia as a child during the 1960s is what I perceive at present to be a quiet, unspoken, “wink-wink”, still-deeply-seeded racial prejudice in Georgia. These are individuals who either are too cowardly to be candid and forthright in acknowledging their racial prejudice, or who have no interest in facing squarely a need to stop and challenge themselves about why and whether they are willing to contemplate a more-evolved perspective.

Three. This last point goes to the appearance of recent Facebook posts and web references in which individuals are placing the criticism and blame of this tragic killing on Ahmaud Arbery. To the contrary, I consider blame directed at Arbery to be nothing more than a premature, knee-jerk attempt to support a preconceived, racially-biased conclusion against Arbery.

So, please take a moment to ponder what your innermost race-factor reactions are to this Arbery killing, especially the apparent four-minute chase factor in the above NYT video. Ask yourself if you are jumping immediately to conclusions against Arbery, such as “Arbery had tattoos and looked like someone who is a criminal”; “Arbery had an afro [or dreads, etc.]”; “Why was Arbery running if he didn’t do anything wrong?”; “Arbery should not have walked into that house construction site”; or, “Why did Arbery resist if he was not doing anything wrong?”, etc. Or, is your reaction a passive acceptance simply that “This is what happens when a black man tries to run. Arbery should not have run.”

My forthcoming blog post will show, quite persuasively from my view as a lawyer, zero support for the McMichaels and Bryan being able to rely on the Georgia “citizens arrest” statute as a winning defense for their actions. These three men possibly may have thought they were properly making a citizens arrest, but whatever they thought likely was powerfully, and tragically, motivated by their own preconceived and prejudicial attitudes and beliefs about blacks, especially a black man running.

Revision today 5.26.20 — This NYC Central Park incident just in today illustrates very well the embedded racial bias we as a society collectively need to acknowledge and address, directly and with a receptive spirit. Click here for the update.

The 2017 Gibson Opinion. Divorce? Squirreling Away Assets in Trust?

This blog post is about whether the 2017 Georgia Supreme Court opinion in Gibson now opens the door wider for one spouse more easily – while married — to squirrel away his or her assets in a trust, and then later use that trust as a shield in a divorce proceeding. It does not.

In Gibson,the husband during his marriage funded two trusts with $3.2 million of property; the husband prevailed in keeping the $3.2 million out of his divorce proceeding without the trust assets being subject to equitable division. This is $3.2 million that otherwise would likely have been marital property in the divorce, absent the trust planning. Click here for a copy of Gibson v. Gibson, 801 S.E.2d 40, 301 Ga. 622 (2017).

The key factual distinction laying the foundation for the husband to prevail in Gibson was the lower trial court’s conclusion that the husband retained no interest in the trusts, including no interest as a trustee or beneficiary.  As I touch on again below, my experience is that most spouses who unilaterally create and fund a trust during marriage do retain interests in the trust, albeit as part of the purposeful, stealth design of certain opaque, highly-technical trust provisions.

Back to the Gibson opinion. My sense in talking with other lawyers is that some have an over-optimism leading them to conclude Gibson opens the door wider now enabling one spouse to keep his or her trust out of the divorce arena. For the reasons I state below, I disagree. The backdrop to this misplaced optimism is the following portion of the Gibson opinion:

This is not an issue of first impression for our Court, which has permitted property placed in certain types of trusts to be exempt from equitable division.  . .  . Therefore, property that has been conveyed to a third party is not subject to equitable division absent a showing of fraudulent transfer. See id. If a spouse places property in a trust of which he is the sole beneficiary, that property may be subject to equitable division. See Speed v. Speed , 263 Ga. 166, 430 S.E.2d 348 (1993). But if a spouse is not the sole beneficiary of a trust, the corpus of the trust is not subject to the other spouse’s claim of distribution. See McGinn v. McGinn, 273 Ga. 292, 292, 540 S.E.2d 604 (2001).

Excerpt from the Gibson opinion (I added the bolding and underlining).

The optimists read Gibson (and the “sole beneficiary” excerpt above) to support the notion that a spouse who funds a trust – where that spouse is not a sole beneficiary of the trust –  can now exclude the trust from claims in a divorce. This is a misreading of the above Gibson reference to sole beneficiary.

This sole beneficiary reference is merely a passing remark by the Georgia Supreme Court (what lawyers call obiter dictum) in stating the Gibson case was not a case of first impression on the question of how a trust created during marriage fares later in a divorce action. This sole beneficiary element also was not a fact for consideration as to the Gibson husband’s trusts and not part of the holding in Gibson.  [I have not seen the Gibson trust documents.]

Here are my broader Gibson points for this blog post:

One. I am called upon from time to time to assist divorce lawyers with attacking a trust in a divorce proceeding. My job is to help attack the trust and keep it in the divorce proceeding. My attack at times is directed at the deficiency and shortcomings in the trust document itself, where the drafter failed to cross the “t”s and dot the “i”s. My attack also gets into the various quasi-hidden, stealth trust powers purposely built into the design and framework of the trust that do not easily – merely on the face of the trust document – alert a non-trust lawyer to the existence of continuing powers and potential benefits the spouse retained in the trust (such as powers of appointment held by a friend or other family member; powers to decant the trust to another trust; using someone other than the spouse as the purported settlor of the trust document giving the diversionary appearance the spouse did not create the trust, etc.).

One might ask “Why would a spouse hold these stealth ties to the trust?” The answer, in my experience, is that it is a rare instance where one spouse creates and funds a trust during marriage without making sure he or she still possesses indirect options either to get back the property after the divorce situation ends or ultimately later control the property for that spouse’s own benefit.  Thus, arguably most unilateral trusts are not third-party trusts.  I use the term unilateral for when one spouse puts this trust planning in place without the knowledge of the other spouse.

Two. Whether a trust is or is not a third-party trust is not merely an easy simple ‘yes’ / ‘no’ question. The status and nature of any trust depends in most cases (divorce and non-divorce cases) on the effect of the opaque, stealth technical provisions in the trust document, as part of the purposeful design of the trust. This opaque-stealth question, in my opinion, is where the heart of the fight lies when dealing with a trust in a divorce setting.

Three.  When the trust at issue in a divorce is a third party trust (as in Gibson), that trust under the Gibson opinion will still be subject to a fraudulent transfer analysis in the divorce proceeding, as is the case with virtually any other third-party transfer of property prior to divorce.

The procedural rub is that the law requires, as generally in any fraudulent transfer attack, that the opposing party (the non-trust spouse in a divorce) bears the burden of proof for the fraudulent transfer attack.

Four. But, by contrast, I read Gibson as not changing the existing law or theories in divorce proceedings for trusts that are not third-party trusts. Those trusts are still subject to attack, but without the non-trust spouse bearing the burden of proof under a fraudulent transfer attack.  Here the burden is on the spouse who created the trust — during the marriage – to prove the trust is not marital property.