What are “Stand Your Ground” Laws?

The shooting of Trayvon Martin has focused attention on so-called “Stand Your Ground” laws, which strengthen the right to self defense. Get Legal Lad’s expert take on the significance of such laws, and how they might be used by George Zimmerman, the defendant in the Martin case.

Adam Freedman
May 4, 2012

Today’s topic: “Stand Your Ground” Laws

And now, your daily dose of legalese: This article does not create an attorney-client relationship with any reader. In other words, although I am a lawyer, I’m not your lawyer. In fact, we barely know each other. If you need personalized legal advice, contact an attorney in your community.!

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The Trayvon Martin Case

On February 26, 2012, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was fatally shot in Sanford, Florida by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch coordinator for his community. Zimmerman has been charged with second-degree murder. Much of the reporting about the incident has focused on Florida’s so-called “Stand Your Ground” law, which reinforces the right to self-defense, leading some to the conclusion that this law is a license for vigilante justice. 

Quick and Dirty Tip: In reality, “Stand Your Ground” is merely one aspect of the right to self-defense, and does not permit unprovoked attacks.

Disputed Facts About the Martin Case

The key facts about the Trayvon Martin case are disputed. Mr. Zimmerman claims that Martin attacked him, and that he (Zimmerman) acted in self-defense. According to reports, police records show that Zimmerman was injured, including a broken nose, when police arrived at the scene. If that’s true, it suggests that there was a fight, but it doesn’t tell us who the initial aggressor was. That could be key to the issue of self-defense.

What is the Law of Self-Defense?

Self-defense is a doctrine that allows a person to avoid conviction for a violent crime, if he can establish that he acted to defend himself or another person. In Florida, as in most other states, the doctrine can be used to justify the use of deadly force by a person who (1) reasonably believes that such lethal force is necessary (2) to prevent imminent death or serious bodily harm to himself or another person, or to prevent a “forcible felony” (such as rape or kidnapping).

What is the Duty to Retreat?

The right to use deadly force is pretty much universally available when people are defending themselves in the home. This is an old common law right, popularly known as the “castle doctrine” after the old saying that “a man’s home is his castle.” And a woman’s home, too, of course. But outside the home, the common law had a different rule known as the “duty to retreat.” Under this rule, a person being attacked is under a duty, essentially, to run for his life if he can do so in safety. In such situations, a person could assert the right to self-defense only if he could show that he could not escape.

“Stand Your Ground” Laws

Florida and other older American states generally adopted the duty to retreat from English common law. But the rule lost popularity during the 19th century. Western states generally followed the “true man” doctrine, so called because “true men” don’t flee in the face of danger. This rule was the forerunner of the “Stand Your Ground” laws, which remove any duty to retreat as a pre-condition to using deadly force. According to some commentators, such laws have had limited effect, because the “duty to retreat” does not often come into play. In order to be under a duty to retreat, you have to be able to retreat in complete safety – and if your assailant has a gun, how can you know whether you can escape?

The key point, however, is that “Stand Your Ground” laws do not change the other requirements for self-defense. To go back to the Trayvon Martin case, George Zimmerman won’t have to justify his failure to retreat, but he will still have to show that he reasonably believed that Trayvon Martin was about to kill him or cause serious injury and that deadly force was necessary to stop him. Self-defense will almost certainly not work if Mr. Zimmerman was the initial aggressor – a question that has been raised by reports that a 911 dispatcher advised Zimmerman not to pursue Martin. If that’s true, then jurors will have to examine whether Zimmerman voluntarily chose to ignore the dispatcher’s advice and pursued Martin.

The Controversy over Zimmerman’s Murder Charge

Initially, Florida prosecutors did not charge Zimmerman with any crime. However, a special prosecutor appointed by Florida’s governor has now charged Zimmerman with second-degree murder. Many commentators, including Harvard Law School’s Alan Dershowitz, have criticized this as disproportionate. Under Florida law, second degree murder requires that the killer acted with a “depraved mind” motivated by “ill will, spite, malice or hatred.” Even if Zimmerman fails to establish self-defense, the prosecution might have a difficult time proving beyond a reasonable doubt that he acted with a “depraved mind.” 

What do you think?

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