June 1st, 2012

‘Stand Your Ground’ case examined

On Feb. 26, 2012 in Sanford, Florida, there was a confrontation between Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman. The result was the death of Trayvon Martin. With the exception of Trayvon Martin’s death, there is little agreement as to what happened, why it happened or the law which would be applied to this situation.

The location of the event was The Retreat at Twin Lakes a gated community at approximately 7:09 p.m..

Martin was a 17-year-old African American male who was reportedly unarmed. He allegedly was staying with his father’s fiancée, who lived in the community and was on his way back to her apartment having purchased candy at a local store.

Zimmerman is a 28-year-old multi-racial Hispanic American who was the community watch commander for the gated community. Zimmerman is not a law enforcement officer.

From this point on, the information is less clear. It has been reported that Zimmerman was on a private errand just prior to when he saw Martin. Martin was wearing a hooded sweatshirt, walking back from the store through the community. Zimmerman called 9-1-1 to report Trayvon “as suspicious.” The 9-1-1 operator reportedly told Zimmerman to do nothing himself, but to wait for the police to arrive. He did not wait.

Zimmerman apparently confronted Martin. The words and actions between the two are in dispute. The end result was that Zimmerman and Martin had a physical confrontation. At one point, Zimmerman pulled the gun he was legally carrying and shot Martin. Martin was unarmed. Who confronted whom? Who escalated the confrontation? Who was where during the confrontation? When and why was the gun pulled? Why didn’t Zimmerman wait for the police, as requested of him?

These are just some of the questions needing answers. That night, the Sanford Police did not arrest Zimmerman because Florida has a “stand-your-ground” law.

“Stand-your-ground” is one of a number of modifications to the concept of self-defense. Self-defense, in its basic form, is using enough force to repel force used against you. To use deadly force in a self-defense situation, the basic concept is that the force which is being opposed was enough force to have caused death or grievous bodily harm. Additionally, the force must be used at the moment when harm would be imminent. There may also be a duty to retreat if the means are available.

However, the self-defense laws have been modified in the United States in a number of states. One modification was the introduction of the “Castle Doctrine” which allows the use of protection using deadly force to protect one’s home, even in the absence of some of the elements needed to establish self-defense. The tension here is between two concepts. The first concept is that a person’s home is one’s castle and that someone who enters that space without permission is not there with good intent and does not deserve society’s protection.

The other view is that there is a limit to this doctrine if there is a means of “egress” (exit) as human life is more valuable than property. These laws are not exactly the same in each state but, according to Wikipedia, the following New England states have a “Castle Law”: Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Vermont does not appear to have a specific law other than self-defense, but may have some of these defenses under some circumstances.

The “stand-your-ground” law is different in that you do not have to retreat or find a means of “egress,” whether or not you are in your own home. In New England, New Hampshire has such a law. Florida also has a “stand-your-ground” law. There are 17 states that have enacted some form of this law. These states listed are Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Montana, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah and Washington State.

New Hampshire enacted its law over the veto of its governor. Each state may have a different reason as to why it favors such a law. There may be a belief about liberty and the right to bear arms.

There may be a belief about the deterrent effect of people carrying and using arms so that they are never fearful that they will be harmed by others. There may be other reasons as well. These laws must be read carefully as they can differ greatly from state to state.

In the Florida event, there’s the possible anomaly that the person who caused the confrontation and then was losing the fight, is permitted to kill an unarmed person and be protected by the “stand-your-ground” law. It is unclear whether that is the situation here. Although there were others who may have heard or seen some of the confrontation from a distance, only Zimmerman and Martin were privy to their interactions up close and only Zimmerman survived to say what happened.

The state of Florida appointed a special prosecutor and she has brought second degree murder charges against Zimmerman. There should be a trial this year.

Edward M. Stern, J.D., has a private law practice in Newtonville, Mass., Stern serves as assistant dean for pre-law advising at Boston University and is a visiting lecturer for the University of Massachusetts/Boston Department of Sociology.

By Edward Stern J.D.

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