Mike Kueber's Blog

March 26, 2012

Stand Your Ground

The Trayvon Martin case has brought attention to a legal concept I had not previously heard of – i.e., the “Stand Your Ground” defense or immunity.  For a thumbnail description of the concept, I turned to Wikipedia and found the following:

  • A stand-your-ground law states that a person may use deadly 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.

Texas hasn’t adopted a Stand Your Ground law, but it adopted the Castle law in 2007, and that has proven to be controversial in the local news whenever a homeowner shoots an intruder.  A neighbor of one of my best friends relied on the law a few months ago when he was prosecuted for shooting in the back and killing a young man who intruded into his house.  As with the Trayvon Martin case, the San Antonio case was controversial because the victim was arguably totally innocent – i.e., he might have accidentally gone into the wrong house and then was shot as he ran toward the street.

As conservative as Texas is, it is surprising that we lag behind Florida on this issue.  In 2005 Florida already had the Castle doctrine, but because they thought that didn’t sufficiently empower its citizens, they expanded the law to include Stand Your Ground.  As reported by the NY Times in 2005, Jeb Bush signed the Florida Stand Your Ground law after it received overwhelming legislative support.    

Wikipedia provides the rationale for Stand Your Ground laws:

  • 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 (256 U.S. 335, 343 (16 May 1921) a case that upheld the “no duty to retreat” maxim that “detached reflection cannot be demanded in the presence of an uplifted knife.” 

I have only been following the Martin/Zimmerman case for a few days, and inexplicably most of the news reports have not attempted to report the underlying facts, so today I went searching on the internet for some of those facts, and found an interesting report on Slate.com.  According to Slate’s Emily Bazelon: 

  • The only evidence the police have that Zimmerman acted in self-defense is that he said he lost sight of Martin—after following him despite the 911 dispatcher’s instruction not to—and was going back to his truck when Martin attacked him. That’s it. The only evidence supporting Zimmerman is Zimmerman’s claim about what happened.
  • But there are at least four reasons to doubt what Zimmerman has to say. First, there is the tape of his own 911 call, on which he is agitated by Martin merely because the 17-year-old was walking through the gated community where Zimmerman lives, and then grumbles, “These assholes. They always get away.” Second, this wasn’t Zimmerman’s first phone call like this. He has placed other 911 calls, 46 over 10 years, in which he reported black people for hanging out and children for playing in the street. Third, and most important, is the account of Martin’s girlfriend, who says he was talking to her on his cellphone in the moments before he died. She says Martin told her, “I think this dude is following me,” thought he’d lost Zimmerman, and then said, “He is right behind me again. I’m not going to run, I’m going to walk fast.” The girlfriend claims she next heard another voice say, “What are you doing around here?” to which Martin answered, “Why are you following me?” She then heard Martin get pushed and sounds as if his phone was hitting the ground. Last, there’s just the sheer unlikelihood of a teenager afraid he was being followed, and trying to walk away fast, suddenly turning and pouncing on a much bigger man. (Zimmerman weighed 100 pounds more than Martin.)

And CBS News provided some insights from the two authors of Florida’s Stand Your Ground law:

  • It is the fact that Zimmerman ignored the 911 operator’s advice not to follow Martin that former Sen. Peaden says disqualifies him from claiming self-defense under the law. “The guy lost his defense right then,” Peaden told the Miami Herald. “When he said ‘I’m following him,’ he lost his defense.”
  • Rep. Dennis Baxley, Peaden’s co-sponsor in the Florida House, agrees with his former colleague, telling the newspaper that the law does not license neighborhood watch or others who feel “like they have the authority to pursue and confront people. That is aggravating an incident right there.”
  • Both co-sponsors told the newspaper, however, that they did not think the law needed to be re-examined. “If you want to pass something, pass something that limits their ability to pursue and confront people,” Baxley said. “It’s about crime watch,” he said. “What are the limitations of crime watch? Are you allowed to jump out and follow people and confront them? What do you think is going to happen? That’s where it starts.”
  • But during the town hall meeting in Sanford, Florida Rep. Geraldine Thompson promised the law’s repeal would be a top priority for the state legislature’s black caucus. “If vigilante justice becomes the norm, will visitors feel comfortable coming to our state?” she asked.

I think Rep. Thompson has focused on what will be the ultimate issue in the Miller/Zimmerman matter. It is not, as many opine or Obama suggests, Miller’s hoodie or police harassment of black males or white profiling of blacks. Instead, it will be the narrow issue of what conservatives call citizen self-defense and liberals call vigilantes. Both sides think the public is on their side, but I think the liberals are wrong on that.