The Myths and Realities of ‘Stand Your Ground’ Laws

In recent days a great deal of ill-informed commentary has appeared about the “stand your ground” self-defense law enacted in Florida and many other states since 2005 (earlier) and how if at all it applies to the February 26 confrontation between George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin. The Orlando Sentinel invited me to sort things out for readers and the resulting op-ed is here.

Much of the piece is devoted to clearing away myths:

Let’s start with one of the most common misreadings of the law, namely that (in the words of Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne) it sets out a rule of “Feel threatened, just shoot.” Florida law justifies lethal self-defense in a public place only under reasonable belief that force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm.

Belief that’s not reasonable is of no account. No wonder, according to Sentinel reporting, Central Florida police regularly arrest people who try to claim self-defense after committing violent acts, and courts regularly convict them. That’s consistent with the “stand your ground” law.

The best-known provision of “stand your ground” rejects the so-called “duty to retreat.” Under that rule, prosecutors could sometimes overcome an otherwise valid claim of self-defense by arguing that you could have safely fled your attacker.

But — to clear up another misconception — the old duty of retreat would not have put Zimmerman at fault for following Trayvon around the neighborhood. Instead it came into play only when a confrontation had boiled up to a point of imminent violence.

Evidence remains inconclusive on some crucial points, in particular what happened immediately before the two men got into a scuffle in which Martin inflicted injuries on Zimmerman, who then shot him. (Jacob Sullum has a good summary of the current state of reporting, which is changing rapidly.) Under most likely scenarios, however, Zimmerman’s guilt or innocence as a substantive matter is the same under Stand Your Ground as under Florida’s pre-2005 law, because the prosecutors’ case probably would not hinge on the “duty to retreat.” The 2005 law does afford him some procedural advantages, however; and it also has a number of other provisions (applying to immunity in defense of property and of third parties’ safety, for example) that may well be worth a second look but are not relevant to the Martin/Zimmerman case.

On the key legal issue of “provocation” as it applies to violent fights, by the way, Michael Mannheimer has a very useful post at PrawfsBlawg. You can read my new Orlando Sentinel piece here.