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The Stand-Your-Ground Law

There is presently a lot of discussion over the shooting of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman in Sanford, Florida on February 26.  CNN has this story.  Perhaps the most sensible comment is the one by, of all people, Jeffrey Toobin.

"Clearly, the question at the heart of the case is whether Zimmerman reasonably felt threatened," Toobin said. "On this issue, the evidence currently seems murky."

Never wanting to waste a good crisis, though, some people are using this controversy to attack "stand your ground" laws.  These laws say that if you are unlawfully attacked, you can resist.  You are not required to retreat from a place where you have a right to be.

These laws do not give a person a right to be the aggressor and certainly not to be a vigilante, which is the charge being made against Zimmerman.

Overall, the law tends to be too restrictive of the right of self-defense, not too lax.  If the other guy is the aggressor, you should be allowed to use as much force as you need to defend yourself, and if he is hurt or killed, that's what he gets for attacking you in the first place.  The same is true of anyone who breaks into your home.  The possibility that someone may be home and shoot a burglar dead is an occupational hazard of burglary.  To avoid that hazard, don't break into homes.  Easy enough.

Government cannot provide us with sufficient protection.  In California, especially, our government is in the process of putting criminals on the street who should be in prison because it cannot afford the inflated price of our prisons.  If government is not going to protect us from them, the least it can do is allow us to protect ourselves.


The Florida statute also tightly restricts the right to use deadly force when the user of such force "provokes" the affray. See Fla. Stat. Ann. sec. 776.041(2). I think it clear that whatever Trayvon Martin did, it was provoked by Zimmerman.

The liberals are whining that Zimmerman has forever quieted the witness against him. If prosecutors could comment on the accused's silence at trial, that wouldn't be so much of an issue. And we have liberals to thank for that bit of nonsense.

It is interesting how issues flip the traditional biases of the players. Here, the CJLF is advocating an expansive self-defense and liberals (including criminal defense attorneys) are arguing that the self-defense laws are too broad. The argument quoted above about Mr. Zimmerman silencing Mr. Martin (e.g. the "only witness against him") again sounds like a prosecutor's arguments.

Whatever your opinion on self-defense laws, the law should not expand or contract based on how much we love or hate the Defendant or the deceased.

The legal system in many states is in a mess on gun issues because "pack and strap" and "stand your ground legislation" has been bolted on top of a legal system which mostly disliked the use of lethal force. This creates a mess of contradictory laws. For instances, in half the states you need to be faced with a lethal force to display a weapon. Stated another way, I can't draw a gun until I'm legally allowed to kill my assailant even if the display of the weapon might stop the situation from reaching that point. Gun ownership is frequently invoked by prosecutors to show guilty knowledge even though self-defense experts often tell you that you don't know when trouble is going to "come knocking." Owning more than one gun or being a card carrying member of the NRA also proves your homicidal intent in some courtrooms.

I'm an ACLU liberal and an NACDL member who has often litigated on the opposite of CJLF. I don't own a gun and have only been to a gun range once since leaving high school. (I was on a high school rifle team).

I don't know what happened in Florida, but pressuring the prosecutor to bring a case that he doesn't think is warranted is highly troubling. Mr. Martin was probably innocent, but I still don't think the charges should be brought if Mr. Zimmerman's belief in the right to use self-defense was honest and reasonable. Mr. Zimmerman cannot have been engaging in a criminal act at the time (which I don't think he was).

If I lost a loved one in a mistaken exercise of self-defense, I'd be crushed and furious, but any system that recognizes self-defense has to recognize that there will be wrongful deaths. You cannot run a replay of the situation or impanel an advisory jury to confirm your right to pull a trigger. These confrontations often happen in poorly lighten uncomfortable situations with people who have not been run through FBI obstacle courses.

Stated another way, not charging Mr. Zimmerman does not diminish the value of Trayvon Martin's life or the genuine grief his family is feeling. My heart goes out them.

FWIW, CJLF has twice filed briefs in support of defendants charged with using excessive force against an aggressor.

We haven't taken a position in this case because we don't know who is the aggressor. As Toobin says, the evidence is murky.

I'm having trouble signing in with other services, although I have commented in the past on this site as decencyevolves.

As this blog post and all too much of the reporting abut this incident seem to indicate, it is easy to miss what is most disturbing about this case. The media has reported the basic facts as these: Trayvon Martin was walking to his father's home, armed with skittles and a Pepsi, and talking to his girlfriend on his cellphone. George Zimmerman was armed with a pistol, and pursued Martin, against the advice of a 911 operator, based on his suspicion that Martin looked suspicious because he was "out of place" and dressed in a hoodie. Minutes later, Martin told his girlfriend that he was being pursued by someone. The two then engaged in a scuffle that left Zimmerman bleeding and Zimmerman shot Martin dead. Now Zimmerman may be able to convince a jury that he didn’t provoke the fight and that he was in legitimate fear of serious injury or death, and the jurors may find that credible and conclude he is guilty of nothing. On the other hand, the jury might find Zimmerman incredible and conclude that he is guilty of murder or manslaughter. That is what we have a jury system for after all.

People are justifiably disturbed that Zimmerman wasn't arrested. Imagine if the situation was reversed, and Martin shot Zimmerman dead after pursuing Zimmerman, gun in hand and against the advice of a 911 operator, because he "looked suspicious" and was "out of place" in a largely black neighborhood, and it turned out that all Zimmerman was armed with was a bag of skittles and a Pepsi, and was visiting a friend. Do you think Martin would have escaped immediate arrest in his suburban Central Florida town under those circumstances?

What does it say to African Americans that Zimmerman did so? What does it tell them about their personal safety and the willingness of law enforcement officials to safeguard it? Aren't those more important questions for a blog and the legal director of an organization allegedly devoted to protecting the interests of crime victims to be talking about? And why don't you find the fate of Martin more disturbing than you seem to?

Unfortunately, we had to make a change in our commenting system a while back to deal with spam. You are now designated a "trusted commenter" and your comments should appear immediately. Because your Yahoo ID is just a string of random characters, it would be helpful if you "sign" your comments in the text with a name. Pseudonyms are OK.

You haven't seen these concerns in the media? I've seen them all over.

The fate of Martin is indeed disturbing if the facts are as his advocates claim. I'm waiting for more facts before jumping in. Perhaps voice analysis of the 911 calls will tell us more.

For the moment, I made the point I thought needed to be made that was not adequately being covered by others. Whichever way this case shakes out, we should not be narrowing the right of self-defense. Stuart's comment that the laws are sometimes poorly drafted and bolted on top of existing law is well taken, however, and clarifying legislation may well be in order.

I don't know all the facts, but according to this witness, Martin was on top of Zimmerman beating him:


From what I am reading on the internet, a lot of people just want to see a race riot and it make me sick.

The problem, shawn, is that Martin probably had a right to do this. The evidence seems very clear (at least what has come out) that Martin was chased by Zimmerman. When someone chases you, typically, you get to defend yourself.

That's the whole problem with the focus on whether Zimmerman was defending himself. The issue is whether he was privileged to defend himself with deadly force. There is something definitely wrong with the idea that self-appointed watch captains get to follow people on the street (and that's admitted too) and challenge them. I've walked around my house at 2 in the morning, and I wouldn't appreciate (and would react accordingly) if some non-cop started asking me questions about my presence on a public way. Certainly, that is provocative.

I don't think it can be forgotten that Martin was in a place he had every right to be and was acting in a law-abiding manner before Zimmerman decided to play cop. That doesn't necessarily make Zimmerman guilty, but it's very hard to lay the finger of blame at Martin's feet.

Spare me the lecture on self defense law. I see no reason to argue it when at this point no one knows the actual evidence. The problem is that this case is being tried by the very bias press, who have left out very significant facts and made other facts up, in order to intentionally inflame people. Now, we have a bunch of yahoos convicting this kid without a trial and just itching for race riots. It's disgusting.

This is decencyevolves: I'm with federalist on this. The problem isn't the Florida law--it has been the initial reaction of the local police to this. I am glad to see that the police chief stepped aside after a no-confidence vote from the city commissioners announced their lack of confidence in him.

Having grumbled a particularly foul racial epithet (I heard it and you can too Shawn), Zimmerman defied the advice of a 911 operator and pursued a teenager who was legitimately in his father's neighborhood, gun in hand. It sounds as if Zimmerman ended up with a bloody nose, on his back in wet grass--not too surprising really given his attitude and actions.

That sounds like provocation, looking for trouble, not standing your ground by any definition, but Zimmerman should have every chance to convince a jury otherwise. I imagine at this point that a jury will decide this issue, and that's what people are calling for, not for race riots Shawn. What is so very unfair about that?

Shawn, I don't think I was lecturing. Provocation is an issue in this case, not just self-defense.

@ Friedman, above:

"Mr. Martin was probably innocent, but I still don't think the charges should be brought if Mr. Zimmerman's belief in the right to use self-defense was honest and reasonable. Mr. Zimmerman cannot have been engaging in a criminal act at the time (which I don't think he was)."

It is not up to law enforcement officials to decide if the actions of an armed, self-appointed vigilante in fatally shooting an unarmed youth half his size were reasonable. This is what we have courts for. Moreover, the police department itself has given us evidence that it did not find Zimmerman's actions to be reasonable. The police told Zimmerman, a man who had made some 50 calls to 911 in the last month complaining about African Americans on the street, to back off and leave the boy alone. Zimmerman did not.

So if Martin is innocent, as you reasonably surmise, why don't we let a jury decide if Zimmerman was, too? Any law that gives an armed aggressor a presumption of innocence merely upon claiming self-defense is downright scary. It is unAmerican, and as the circumstances of this case amply demonstrate, it has obvious potential for permitting government abuse of our civil rights.

Federalist, you were patronizing.

As to the other comments, people are just repeating the misinformation being spun by the race baiters.

Zimmerman was neighborhood watch and dialed 911 47 times in one year - not one month. Not once had he ever pulled his gun before. In that area, there were eight burglaries, nine thefts, and a shooting just in the past year. If Martin had the right to be there, so did Zimmerman. The wit who did call the police because Zimmerman was yelling for help and 911, said he saw Martin straddling Zimmerman and punching him in the face. There was no statement that Zimmerman had his gun out. Martin by the way is 6'2" and a football player. I have read conflicting descriptions of Zimmerman. He's either 5'2" or 5'7" and obviously fat.

Did Zimmerman confronting Martin give Martin the right to assault Zimmerman? Why didn't Martin call 911 since he allegedly had a phone in his hand? Are you telling me that if I see a suspicious person in my neighborhood, call 911 and then follow them so I can direct the police to them that is cause for that person to knock me down and beat me? I didn't break the law and neither did Zimmerman in following this guy. What right did Martin have to assault him? Because he was p.o.'d about being challenged? Tough. How is that justification for assaulting Zimmerman?

So, keep spreading half truths, misrepresentations and trying this is the media and on the internet. No matter what the outcome, I'm sure you're going to get your race riot. A pox on all your houses!

Shawn, if all the facts are as you state them to be (and it strikes me that you are spinning them as much as anybody), Zimmerman still has legal problems. That is why the incident belongs in court, and as far as I can tell, that's the only thing people are up in arms about -- the fact that it hasn't gotten there already. I'm pretty sure it will, and then maybe we'll all get a more balanced presentation of the facts.

As for what you call "race baiting," incidents such as these bring to the surface a tremendous amount of pain, anger and confusion in our society. We all know that problems of racism persist, but there are few ways or places for people with varying stories and points of view to have a safe or acceptable dialogue about them. Perhaps there is a way in which cases such as Trayvon's and George's create opportunities for people to air resentments that they cannot otherwise share or address in a constructive way.

Correction: per the police rpt, Zimmerman was 5'9" no wt listed and Martin was 6' 160 lbs. I take Martin's with a grain of salt because of his age and I assume they either got the info off ID or guessed.

Anyway, Zimmerman told police that he had returned or was returning to his truck when Martin jumped him from behind.

"What right did Martin have to assault him? Because he was p.o.'d about being challenged? Tough. How is that justification for assaulting Zimmerman?"

It seems very clear that Zimmerman chased Martin. That would give Martin the right to defend himself and would withdraw the privilege of deadly force from Zimmerman.

In any event, whether or not Zimmerman provoked things is an issue, and so is not patronizing. I don't mind sharp exchanges, but I don't see how your attacks on me are at all justified. I'm not offended, mind you, I just think you're overreacting.

>>>>It seems very clear that Zimmerman chased Martin.

Really???? What evidence do you have to back that up? Zimmerman told the police that he had gone back to his truck when Martin jumped him from behind. Zimmerman has injuries to the back of his head. A wit saw Martin straddling Zimmerman, punching him repeatedly, while Martin yelled for 911 and help. So, in federalist-la-la-land, Zimmerman had to lay there and just take the beating for ever, even if it killed him...

You were patronizing to start off with and you continue to be so.


re: the liberal whining about Zimmerman's silencing the witness against him. I haven't seen any media reports of evidence that would indicate Trayvon was killed by Zimmerman as part of a cover up, but it is interesting that notions of "silencing" inform the tenor of the public outrage in this case. Maybe it is the idea that, regardless of the evident merit of a self-defense claim, it is somehow the duty of the prosecution to attempt to vindicate the rights of any and every individual who is killed without legal sanction; when the state fails to protect its citizens in this regard, it effectively acts as an accomplice in silencing the rights of the victim – a victim who, without the state’s intervention, could never have hope of redress unless his lay advocates took the law into their own hands (which, ironically, is what it seems this Zimmerman was doing). If we have no response from law enforcement in such a case as this, then indeed, Zimmerman can silence the only witness against him. It really strikes me that the problem in this case doesn't concern the law of self-defense, but rather the discretion vested in law enforcement officials. How is it that the Florida "stand your ground" law (which strikes me as a very standard formulation of self-defense rights) leads to more relaxed procedures in charging cases?

And I'm also curious if anyone knows offhand: has the Florida law been interpreted to mean that deadly force can be used against an attacker even if the responder does not perceive the threat to be deadly? As far as I can tell, the wording of the statute requires that the self-defender reasonably perceive himself to be in imminent danger of death or great bodily harm in order to use deadly force, but there seems to be conflicting commentary on this. And I can't understand why, if it is the case that a deadly threat must be reasonably perceived, the "Stand your ground" law would be so controversial. Isn't it the case that only a minority of jurisdictions require retreat when confronted with deadly force, even outside the home?

This is decencyevolves:

It does seem likely that this matter will be resolved in court, as it should be. The outrage in this case came from Police Chief Lee's statement that he lacked probable cause to arrest Zimmerman, nothwithstanding the facts that: (1) per the 911 call it appeared that Zimmerman armed himself and pursued Martin against the advice of a 911 operator, (2) Zimmerman shot and killed Martin, who was unarmed, and (3) Zimmerman grumbled a racial epithet and angrily complained about "these a**holes getting away with it" before defying the operator's advice and confronting Martin. The City Manager then insisted that Florida law constituted an absolute bar to prosecution of Zimmerman.

The assertions that Zimmerman's actions don't even constitute probable cause for arrest and that his prosecution is necessarily barred by Florida law don't pass the smell test, and contributed to the city council's vote of no confidence in Lee. The facts I've cited above suggest the possibility that Zimmerman may be guilty of manslaughter at least, but we won't know until we get to the end of this process. This happened in a city where the last police chief had to retire early after refusing to arrest the son of a police lieutenant, captured on videotape beating up an African American homeless man.

Zimmerman can make his arguments and testify if he desires. Perhaps he will win and perhaps he'll lose, but making him do so hardly constitutes unfairness or persecution.

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