Making the case that the ‘Stand Your Ground Law’ does not shield George Zimmerman from prosecution under Florida law.
My condolences and sympathies to Trayvons family and friends. My heart aches for any parent losing a son. The enormity of his death will hopefully assure positive change. Let’s help that along.
Recently I attempted to make the point that the Florida ‘Stand Your Ground Law’ should not help George Zimmerman, or anyone else that would deliberately follow a perceived threat and then kill an unarmed man. My point with due respect to my lack of a law degree is that a fair reading of the statute would support my view, despite what we have seen and read about Florida in various cases.
I would add the sponsors of the bill have explicitly agreed with my point. So has the former governor that signed the bill. As controversial as they may be, that still is an essential bit of direct testimony to the original intent of the lawmakers.
In this red hot media frenzy we see all kinds of assumptions asserted, from the ridiculous to the exploitive. I nominate Geraldo Rivera for the “Dumbest Dog Whistle Racism of 2012” with his hoodie comment. The 911 recordings have been very convincing to some. Not at all to others. All sides are grasping at this incident to support long held positions. We have a dearth of reliable evidence.
Some are claiming that the statute in fact is so broad as to include protection for a person that follows and confronts a perceived threat such as George Zimmerman apparently did. I find that at best a serious misunderstanding or at worst an exploitation contrived to attack this law.
This is a perfect example of why neighborhood watch must not include guns. Lights, communications, teamwork and coordination with subordination to the police is how neighborhood watch works. When George followed Trayvon he screwed up as big as it gets.
As self defense advocacy & instruction is something I take seriously, I made a phone call with an attorney friend willing to spend some time. I have not gone to law school. I have spent considerable time studying self defense laws, city attorney’s actions, and some case law here in California. I started that in 1986.
Some would point out one should not ignore case law. I would add one cannot rely on media or advocates cherry picking of case law either, and evaluating all the Florida cases in full is beyond my resources at this time. Cherry picks are all we get from the advocates against the law. Those for the law can point to cases where defensive force was justified. More cherry picks.
We have good reason to set assumptions aside as best we can. If we blame the law when prosecutors or police are mishandling the law or citizens we are not going to get a good solution. The sudden departure of the police chief may well be a hint that this is so. The fix needs perfect aim.
Without further preliminary comment-
Interesting question. My conclusion: The Stand Your Ground Rule is pretty much irrelevant here. Not for the reasons you advanced, though!
The relevant portion of the statute provides:
(3) A person who is not engaged in an unlawful activity and who is attacked in any other place where he or she has a right to be has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony. [Emphasis added.]
Florida Title XLVI, Chapter 776, section 776.013(3).
Subsection 3 is NOT part of the Castle Doctrine, which provides that a person resisting an intruder in his dwelling, residence or car is PRESUMED to have a reasonable fear of imminent peril of death or great bodily harm to himself or another. This presumption means that the person who shoots an intruder in his house does NOT have to prove that he was acting in a reasonable fear of death or great bodily harm. It is almost as if the use of deadly force is automatically pre-approved.
It seems clear that Trayvon Martin was not illegally entering anyone’s dwelling, home or car. So the Castle Doctrine is not in issue.
Instead, the “Stand Your Ground” provision is applicable. What the Stand Your Ground provision says is that if you are attacked, you don’t have to run away. You can stay and defend yourself. Your decision not to run away is NOT going to come back and bite you in the a$$. You have a right not to run away, but to instead face your attacker. You can “meet force with force.” However, it does not say that you can meet flower petals with force.
The Stand Your Ground provision does not say that you are justified in using deadly force. The person who stands his ground and uses deadly force does not have to justify standing his ground, but he still must justify using deadly force. He still must prove that he was in (1) REASONABLE (2) fear of [(3) imminent] death or serious bodily injury to himself or others, and (4) that he used deadly force in order to protect himself (or others).
If Zimmerman was chasing or pursuing Martin, the “Stand Your Ground” rule is not really applicable. It would not then have been a question of whether Zimmerman could have avoided the confrontation by retreating. It instead would be a question of whether Zimmerman precipitated that incident by his pursuit.
On the other hand, if Zimmerman had broken off the pursuit, as he claims, and was on his way back to his truck, only to be pursued by Martin, then the Stand Your Ground Rule might apply.
But I don’t understand why anyone is asking about the Stand Your Ground Rule. The Stand Your Ground Rule simply says that Zimmerman did not have to avoid the need to use deadly force by retreating. That is the only thing that the Stand Your Ground Rule addresses.
BEFORE we worry about whether the Stand Your Ground Rule applies, we first have to decide (1) if Zimmerman had a fear of death or grievous bodily injury, (2) if that fear was REASONABLE and (3) if the threat was IMMINENT. Only after those are all answered with a YES do we look at the question of whether Zimmerman was required to retreat or if he was entitled to stand his ground. Because the Castle Doctrine, which creates a presumption in favor of the use of deadly force, does NOT apply here, Zimmerman must prove that he was entitled to use deadly force. (The burden is on Zimmerman. The State would not have to prove that he was NOT acting in self-defense.)
It seems that Martin was unarmed, except for his package of Skittles. Even if Martin threatened to force-feed Skittles to Zimmerman, that would not be fear of an IMMINENT threat – those things take decades to kill you. And being hit over the head with a box (or bag) of Skittles is unlikely to present a risk of grievous bodily injury. So I am very reluctant to conclude that this was a matter of self-defense. The Stand Your Ground Rule has nothing to do with this case, unless it was otherwise a legitimate case of self-defense.
Warning: I am basing this on general legal principles. I am not a Florida attorney and I have not researched Florida law. But it is pretty basic that the Stand Your Ground Rule is an afterthought to this case; the real question is if Zimmerman was justified in using deadly force in the first case.
If George Zimmerman stepped out of the protections of this law, we really should stop considering this incident and that law together. Regard the law from a reasonable fair read of the text. Insist that prosecutors and police are educated in that read. Apply a reasonably conservative meaning to justifiable force.
Often crime happens where there is a lack of witnesses or cameras. Placing the burden of proof is fraught with hard consequences regardless. Set it or apply it too high and victims go to jail for defending themselves. Please consider a moment the reasonable standard for a woman fighting a rape. Set it or apply it too low and you get what we saw in Florida with George Zimmerman.
If Florida is failing to prosecute many of these cases, to make any conclusions we would have to look at how many of those cases would have seen the defensive force upheld and why.
Looking beyond this incident, I advocate narrowing the use of this law at the law enforcement and prosecutor levels. Sanford has a reputation for racism. That may be more at fault than the law by far.
I think any law that fails to trigger an investigation or arrest in the case of an unarmed person being killed or wounded by an armed person is coming up short.
Another beneficial change might be to define it for a more real threat than perceived.
The killing of an unarmed man out in public is almost never necessary. In this case it remains to be seen if the law itself is at fault (as its long time critics prematurely claim) or a pervasive policy of looking the other way when a white man confronts a black man. Repealing that law in whole or part will fail to rightly address the problem at it’s true source.
If it turns out that Florida has a pattern of failing to prosecute people who abuse or step out of this law as reasonably read, if racism is why a cop fails to arrest, or a prosecutor fails to file charges, removing the “Stand Your Ground” law will merely divert attention from the better solution.
Text of law