Trayvon Martin Killing Provokes Debate Over Stand Your Ground Laws
The tragic killing of Florida teen Trayvon Martin has gripped the national conversation and drawn attention to the state’s “Stand Your Ground" law, which holds that if someone feels they are being attacked, they may use deadly force. They have no duty to retreat.
A key section of the Florida law states:
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.
That’s the law that Martin’s confessed killer, self-appointed neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman, invoked to argue that he shot Martin in self-defense, though Martin was unarmed. However, evidence including 911 tapes and a reported phone conversation Martin’s girlfriend had with him moments before he was killed, suggest that Zimmerman chased the teenager down and shot him.
The inaction by the Sanford Police Department, their unapologetic refusal to arrest Zimmerman even as embattled police chief Bill Lee Jr. stepped down from his post, has sparked sustained outrage across the nation. Martin’s parents have taken to national television to call for law enforcement to act. The FBI and Justice Department have taken over the case. Even President Barack Obama has given his thoughts.
This Stand Your Ground statute is not unique to Florida, as is clear from a state-by-state comparison from FindLaw. As ProPublica points out, more than 20 states have self-defense laws similar to Florida’s. However, the incident has led some to call for a reexamination of such laws.
University of California, Los Angeles law scholar Adam Winkler weighed in with a post on the New York Times opinion blog, in which he wrote that "Stand Your Ground" encourages vigilantism. “Indeed, given the law’s authorization of the use of deadly force to protect other people and, as the law also provides, ‘to prevent the imminent commission of a forcible felony,’ Florida’s law unambiguously authorizes people to pursue and confront others,” he wrote.
When I suggested to Winkler via email that the “duty to retreat” clause was the key part of the law, he responded, “I’m not sure the no duty to retreat is the problem, but rather that the Florida law authorizes people to use deadly force when they reasonably believe it necessary to prevent certain felonies, including property crimes like burglary.”
Some legal experts, however, argue that gross police misconduct, not the letter of the law, is the real issue. Neon Tommy contacted attorney and University of Southern California political science professor Olu Orange for his thoughts on the story.
NT: Obviously, it’s an emotional story, but why has this touched such a nerve in this country?
Olu Orange: Because the visceral, common sense reaction of almost everyone who hears the story is exactly the opposite of the action the police took, which was inaction.
NT: On the one hand, the Stand Your Ground Law seems pretty reasonable in the sense that, if you’re actually attacked, you ought to be able to defend yourself. So is it just a case of gross miscarriage of local justice, or is it symptomatic of a larger societal problem?
OO: It’s a misapplication of the law. The immunity against prosecution in the statute is followed immediately by a section of the law in the same chapter that says the immunity is not available to you if you were the initial aggressor, which Zimmerman was. It also says the only way you get the immunity, even if you weren't the initial aggressor, is if the force is so great that you have no opportunity to retreat and find some place of safety.
That’s just not the case when someone like Zimmerman chases down the person, against the instructions of the police dispatcher, and shoots and kills him. I fail to fathom how it is that the police department, supposedly comprised of thinking individuals, could mess this up.
NT: Has this law been misapplied in this way before?
OO: It’s not an uncommon law! As you said, on its face, it doesn’t seem that unreasonable. It does seem like it might lead to some quicker shootings than if you did have to attempt to retreat first. The bigger question is, what do you do about these folks who chase people down? So, fine, you can stand your ground. But you can’t invade someone else’s ground and shoot him.
NT: One of your areas of expertise is police misconduct. At this point, whom are the police accountable to?
OO: Generally no one. They have no legal obligation to enforce the law. As weird and counterintuitive as that may sound, it’s true.
NT: That’s a pretty striking statement, because we rely on our law enforcement officials.
OO: While there may be no legal duty to enforce the law, there is a prohibition against discriminatory enforcement of the law. If they enforce the law against some people and not others, then they’re in trouble. If I happened to be in Florida right now, I would be looking at demographic distinctions between whom they have prosecuted in shooting cases. I want to know the difference between those they go after and Mr. Zimmerman.
NT: Is there a chance this will cause a push to reconsider laws like Florida’s, or is it too much of an outlier of a case?
OO: I think the problem in this case is not the way the law is written. The problem is with the local police and their abject failure to correctly apply the law. So I don’t think this case will lead to any change in the law or any reconsideration of the law. I think the biggest change will probably be the change in leadership at that police department.
It’s worth noting that California does not have a “Stand Your Ground" law, per se. Like most states, though, it abides by the Castle doctrine, which holds that a person has no duty to retreat from an attacker and may use deadly force if the victim is in his or her home.
“California's Castle law allows a home's occupant to use deadly force, without retreating, if an intruder creates a 'reasonable fear of imminent peril or death or great bodily injury,'" wrote Andrew Chow on FindLaw. “But a simple burglary that doesn't create fear of great bodily harm isn't enough to justify deadly force.”