Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Trayvon Martin: "Stand Your Ground" Rule Has NOTHING To Do With This Case

A lot of professional and amateur media have argued that the "stand your ground" rule -- a provision in Florida self-defense law -- could complicate or preclude the prosecution of George Zimmerman.  Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin, but police declined to arrest him. Sanford Police Chief Bill Lee insists that he cannot dispute Zimmerman's assertion of self-defense. 911 calls, witness testimony and the fact that Trayvon was unarmed and much smaller than his assailant, however, severely undermine Zimmerman's self-defense argument.

Nevertheless, some commentators -- most of whom lack any legal training -- insist that the stand your ground rule bolsters Zimmerman's defense. This argument is baseless. In order to understand why the rule should not affect the outcome of this case, it is important first to examine the law of self-defense in Florida.

Florida Self-Defense Law

Self-defense allows a defendant charged with a homicide or battery to justify his or her actions. In most states, in order to claim self-defense, the defendant must have a reasonable belief that the victim posed a threat to the defendant or to some other person. Also, there are special rules for the use of "lethal" or "deadly" force. Consider Florida law, for example:
A person is justified in using force, except deadly force, against another when and to the extent that the person reasonably believes that such conduct is necessary to defend himself or herself or another against the other’s imminent use of unlawful force. However, a person is justified in the use of deadly force and does not have a duty to retreat if:

(1) He or she reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the imminent commission of a forcible felony; or

(2) Under those circumstances permitted pursuant to s. 776.013 (italics added).
So, in order to justify killing Martin, Zimmerman must demonstrate that he reasonably believed that Martin was about to kill him or cause him serious bodily injury.

Florida law also describes certain circumstances when people can assume as a mater of law that they are going to become victims of lethal force. These circumstances, referred to in Section (2) above, include carjackings and home invasions, which are not relevant to this case.

Stand Your Ground

In some states, self-defense is not available if the defendant had the ability to "retreat" from the harm. In other words, if the defendant could have escaped the danger without using violence, then the use of force is not justifiable. These states impose a duty to retreat in order to discourage the unnecessary use of force.

In 2005, Florida amended its law to remove the duty to retreat provision. So long as the person claiming self-defense had a legal right to be in a particular location, that individual can stand his or her ground and remain there without any duty to retreat from the threat (see statutory language quoted above).

Critics argue that that the stand your ground rule encourages violence and makes it easier to prove self-defense. To the extent that a person could escape violence by retreating, the stand your ground rule would ordinarily lessen that individual's burden for proving self-defense; it removes one required element of the defense. Some newspaper studies claim that the success rate of self-defense arguments has increased since 2005.

Self-Defense Not Generally Available to Aggressors

For several reasons, however, the stand your ground rule has no bearing on the Martin case. First, Florida law clearly states that self-defense is only available to aggressors under very limited circumstances:
The justification [for using force] described in the preceding sections of this chapter is not available to a person who. . .

(2) Initially provokes the use of force against himself or herself, unless:
(a) Such force is so great that the person reasonably believes that he or she is in imminent danger of death or great bodily harm and that he or she has exhausted every reasonable means to escape such danger other than the use of force which is likely to cause death or great bodily harm to the assailant; or

(b) In good faith, the person withdraws from physical contact with the assailant and indicates clearly to the assailant that he or she desires to withdraw and terminate the use of force, but the assailant continues or resumes the use of force (italics added).
In other words, aggressors can only use lethal force if the victim's response is so great that it would cause a reasonable person to fear death or great bodily injury. But in such a situation, the aggressor must also exhaust "every reasonable means to escape such danger." Translation: under Florida law, the aggressor has a duty to retreat and cannot stand his or her ground.

Under Florida law an aggressor can use lethal force only under one additional circumstance -- when the aggressor indicates that he or she wants to end the confrontation, but the victim continues to fight. But Florida law requires that the aggressor "withdraw" from physical conduct and indicate to the victim a desire to retreat. In other words, the aggressor can use deadly force to defend himself or herself if, after indicating a desire to retreat, the victim will not permit the defendant to do so.

Zimmerman Was the Aggressor

The evidence shows that Zimmerman killed Martin. Zimmerman also admitted to the 911 dispatcher that he was following Martin in his car. Although Zimmerman told the dispatcher that Martin seemed to be on drugs, Martin was actually having a coherent telephone conversation with his girlfriend. According to her testimony, Martin said that a man was following him and that he was trying to escape. Zimmerman, against the advice of the dispatcher, left his car to pursue a fleeing Martin on foot.

Under these circumstances, probable cause exists to charge Zimmerman with murder. Zimmerman initiated contact with Martin. Martin was simply returning home from a store. Because he initiated the aggression, Zimmerman does not have the right to claim self-defense or, consequently, to "stand his ground."

Regardless of the Stand Your Ground Rule, the Force Must Be Proportional to the Threat

Even if the stand your ground rule applied in this case, it would not preclude arresting or even convicting Zimmerman. Any use of lethal force must be proportional to the threat. Under Florida law, this means that regardless of whether he was the aggressor, Zimmerman must have reasonably believed that his life was in danger or that he would suffer serious bodily injury. Martin, however, was unarmed, while Zimmerman had a gun. Martin is 100 pounds smaller than Zimmerman. Witnesses say that Martin was screaming for help. Martin's girlfriend says that he was trying to escape Zimmerman (not vice versa).

So, even with the stand your ground provision, Zimmerman's use of lethal force was likely unjustifiable under the circumstances. The telephone data and statements of Martin's girlfriend are particularly damning.

Probable Cause Exists to Arrest Zimmerman

Although the stand your ground provision is archaic and reminiscent of the Wild West, it has no bearing in this case. Obviously a good defense lawyer would raise the issue, but Zimmerman -- not the prosecutor -- has to prove he acted reasonably.

Probable cause, which the government needs to demonstrate in order to arrest and try Zimmerman, is a pretty easy standard to satisfy. Generally, the government needs only to show that there is a reasonable possibility that the defendant committed a crime. As a Florida appeals court recently held:
Probable cause to arrest exists when facts and circumstances within an officer's
knowledge and of which he had reasonably trustworthy information are sufficient to
warrant a person of reasonable caution to believe that an offense has [been] or is being
(italics added).
The government need not prove that an offense has actually occurred in order to arrest Zimmerman. Instead, the government must establish that after weighing the totality of the circumstances, a reasonable person could believe that Zimmerman has committed a crime. That minimum threshold is absolutely satisfied in this case. Zimmerman should be arrested and prosecuted for killing Trayvon Martin.

For more analysis, see:

Trayvon Martin: A Fatal Flaw in Zimmerman's Self-Defense Argument

Sorry, Trayvon Martin: They Just Don't Like You

BREAKING NEWS in Trayvon Martin Case: Officer in the Case Has A Prior Record of Racial Controversy

Trayvon Martin: 911 Call Contradicts Police Account (Audio)


BREAKING NEWS: Geraldo Rivera Says Hoodie Killed Trayvon Martin


JaxCity47 said...

Excellent write up! The problem here is NOT the Florida Law. The two problems are Zimmerman's over-zealous behavior, and then the police dept's failure to process the scene thoroughly and correctly apply the probable cause standard to arrest Zimmerman. Florida Law is being scapegoated in the media.

Unknown said...

I don't see how you arrived at your conclusion. According to the Florida law you cited, even if Zimmerman provoked Martin, Zimmerman CAN claim self defense if the witness reports are correct in stating that Martin was on top of Zimmerman beating him. That would mean that Zimmerman could not retreat any further, and that the beating may have made Zimmerman feel that he might die or suffer great bodily harm.

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

He can claim self-defense - but force has to be proportional. Having someone on top of you does not translate into a fear of imminent death or seriously bodily injury - particularly when that individual weighs 140 lbs.

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Seriously bodily injury is not a few bruises and scratches. Also, it is a reasonableness test -- not what he "felt."

unknown said...

Do you think that this will cause other States to get rid of the law because of how people understand it - or misunderstand it? I was reading about the issue here Law Blog in my research about the "stand your ground laws" and what this shooting means for the future of the law. I am a recent law school grad so I just find the issue of the law itself interesting and how people understand it. It was interesting to read your description of it since a lot of people now are just outright saying its wrong without actually talking and describing how the law works!

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

There are a lot of problems with the Florida self-defense law, including the "stand your ground" provision. I suspect that Florida's statute will be amended. Hopefully other states will do the same.

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