Stand-your-ground Law

george zimmerman

A stand-your-ground law states that a person may use force in self-defense when there is reasonable belief of a threat, without an obligation to retreat first. In some cases, a person may use deadly force in public areas without a duty to retreat. Under these legal concepts, a person is justified in using deadly force in certain situations and the ‘stand your ground’ law would be a defense or immunity to criminal charges and civil suit. The difference between immunity and a defense is that an immunity bars suit, charges, detention, and arrest. A defense permits a plaintiff or the state to seek civil damages or a criminal conviction.

More than half of the states in the United States have adopted the Castle doctrine, stating that a person has no duty to retreat when their home is attacked. Some states go a step further, removing the duty of retreat from any location. ‘Stand Your Ground,’ ‘Line In The Sand,’ or ‘No Duty To Retreat’ laws thus state that a person has no duty or other requirement to abandon a place in which he has a right to be, or to give up ground to an assailant. Under such laws, there is no duty to retreat from anywhere the defender may legally be. Other restrictions may still exist; when in public, a person must be carrying the firearm in a legal manner, whether concealed or openly.

‘Stand your ground’ governs U.S. federal case law in which self-defense is asserted against a charge of criminal homicide. The Supreme Court ruled in ‘Beard v. U.S.’ (1895) that a man who was ‘on his premises’ when he came under attack and ‘…did not provoke the assault, and had at the time reasonable grounds to believe, and in good faith believed, that the deceased intended to take his life, or do him great bodily harm…was not obliged to retreat, nor to consider whether he could safely retreat, but was entitled to stand his ground.’

In a Minnesota case, ‘State v. Gardner’ (1905), where a man was acquitted for killing another man who attempted to kill him with a rifle, Judge Jaggard stated: ‘The doctrine of ‘retreat to the wall’ had its origin [in Medieval England] before the general introduction of guns. Justice demands that its application have due regard to the general use of and to the type of firearms. It would be good sense for the law to require, in many cases, an attempt to escape from a hand to hand encounter with fists, clubs, and even knives as a justification for killing in self-defense; while it would be rank folly to require [an attempt to escape] when experienced persons, armed with repeating rifles, face each other in an open space, removed from shelter, with intent to kill or cause great bodily harm’

Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. declared in ‘Brown v. United States’ (1921) a case that upheld the ‘no duty to retreat’ maxim that ‘detached reflection cannot be demanded in the presence of an uplifted knife.’

Many states have some form of Castle Doctrine or Stand Your Ground law. Stand your ground laws are frequently criticized and called ‘shoot first’ laws by critics, including the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. In Florida, the law has resulted in self-defense claims tripling, with all but one of those killed unarmed. The law’s critics argue that Florida’s law makes it very difficult to prosecute cases against people who shoot others and then claim self-defense. The shooter can argue they felt threatened, and in most cases, the only witness who could have argued otherwise is the victim who was shot and killed. The Florida law has been used to excuse neighborhood brawls, bar fights, road rage, and even street gang violence. Before passage of the law, Miami police chief John F. Timoney called the law unnecessary and dangerous in that ‘[w]hether it’s trick-or-treaters or kids playing in the yard of someone who doesn’t want them there or some drunk guy stumbling into the wrong house, you’re encouraging people to possibly use deadly physical force where it shouldn’t be used.’

In Florida, a task force examining the law has concluded that the law is ‘confusing.’ Those testifying to the task force include Buddy Jacobs, a lawyer representing the Florida Prosecuting Attorney’s Association. Jacobs recommended the law’s repeal, feeling that modifying the law would not fix its problems. Florida governor Rick Scott plans his own investigation into the law.

The Trayvon Martin case brought a large degree of criticism to the law. Legal experts are split as to whether charges will be dropped under Florida’s stand-your-ground law before the case even goes to trial, as the extant Florida law allows the alleged shooter, George Zimmerman, to argue that the charges should be dropped before trial even begins. Legal experts are also split as to whether Zimmerman’s actions will be viewed as self-defense, should the case go to trial.

The law’s effect on crime rates is disputed between supporters and critics of the law. Florida state representative Dennis Baxley, an author of the law, notes that crime rates in Florida dropped significantly between 2005, when the law was passed, and 2012. However, crime rates had been continuously falling since before 2000, and the stand your ground law did not accelerate this drop in crime. There are numerous theories for the drop in crime, ranging from high incarceration rates, less use of cash, and even the legalization of abortion which has reduced the number of poor young men.

Nevertheless, Baxley gives the law partial credit for the decrease in Florida’s crime rate. Arguing that giving people the ability to defend themselves in public places without fearing prosecution reduces crime, he states, ‘What we’ve learned is if we empower people to stop bad things from happening, they will.’ Critics, however, disagree with Baxley. In a 2007 National District Attorneys Association symposium, numerous concerns were voiced that the law could increase crime. This included criminals using the law as a defense for their crimes, more people carrying guns, and that people would not feel safe if they felt that anyone could use deadly force in a conflict. The report also noticed that the misinterpretation of clues could result in use of deadly force when there was, in fact, no danger. The report specifically notes that racial and ethnic minorities would be at greater risk due to negative stereotypes.

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