Friday, March 23, 2012

Does the "Stand Your Ground" Law Apply to the Trayvon Martin Case?

It is fair to say that over the last 25 days the world has begun to take notice of who 17 year-old Trayvon Martin was and the events surrounding his death.  The case has taken America by storm, but not because of the media's sensationalism of all things race (although one would be hard pressed to argue that race played absolutely no role whatsoever in Trayvon's death).  In fact, the reason why Trayvon's case has forced so many of us to take notice has little to do with his death at all.  Indeed, young teenaged men -- and especially young Black men -- are killed without justification in this country every single day without so much as a below-the-fold headline to acknowledge their departure from this earth.  Rather, what makes this case so special is what happened after Trayvon was killed.

In a word: nothing.

Nobody was charged with a crime.  Nobody was brought before a judge or a jury.  In fact, the shooter (who identified himself to the police that evening as 28 year-old George Zimmerman) is still walking free to this day.  Which, to most reasonably minded people, immediately begs the question: why not?  This is America, right?  Usually, in America, when somebody is gunned down a few feet from their home armed with nothing more than a pack of Skittles, we don't expect the police to show up, give us the Kanye shrug, and go home as if nothing happened.  You don't have to be a federal prosecutor to know that when you shoot somebody to death in this country, you can rest assured that you will, at the very least, be spending some time behind bars while your little "misunderstanding" is sorted out.  But that did not happen here.  Instead, Sanford, Florida Police Chief Bill Lee informed America that, under Florida's so-called "Stand Your Ground" law, the Sanford Police Department concluded that they had no grounds to arrest Zimmerman.  So we thought we'd conduct our own legal analysis as to whether the "Stand Your Ground" law applies here or not.

Whether Florida's "Stand Your Ground" statute allows an armed Florida resident to claim self-defense in the shooting of an unarmed resident when the armed resident pursued and confronted the unarmed resident after being told by the police to stand down.

On the evening of February 26, 2012, 17 year-old Trayvon Martin walked to a local store and was returning to the home of his father's girlfriend in Sanford, Florida when he was spotted by 28 year-old George Zimmerman, a member of the neighborhood watch.  Zimmerman, who was in his car at the time, called the police and stated:
"There's a real suspicious guy. This guy looks like he's up to no good, on drugs or something. It's raining and he's just walking around looking about... These a**holes always get away." 
Zimmerman remained in his vehicle and began to follow Martin who was walking on the sidewalk.  The police dispatcher asked Zimmerman:
"Are you following him?"
Zimmerman replied: 
The dispatcher then instructed:
"OK, we don't need you to do that."
At some point after this exchange with the police dispatcher, Zimmerman exited his vehicle with a 9mm handgun and confronted Martin.  There are apparently no witness to the actual confrontation between Zimmerman and Martin but a young girl on the phone with Martin prior to the altercation stated that she heard Martin ask Zimmerman:
 "Why are you following me?"
According to the girl, Zimmerman responded:
 "What are you doing here?"
and then the cell phone call ended.  Shortly thereafter, three witnesses report heard a boy cry out for help just before they heard gun shots.  Moments later, the police were called to the scene of the shooting where they found Martin, dead, lying on his back with a gun shot wound to the chest. According to Zimmerman, Martin came at him from behind and attacked him so he fired his gun at Martin in self-defense.  Zimmerman is 28 years-old, weighs 250 pounds and was armed with a 9mm hand gun.  Martin was 17 years old, weighed 140 pounds and was carrying a can of ice tea and a packet of Skittles candy. 



The state of Florida, like nearly every other state in America, subscribes to the "Castle Doctrine" which permits residents to use deadly force when attacked in their homes.  See Weiand v. State, 732 So.2d 1044, 1051 (Fla. 1999) (holding that "[w]e join the majority of jurisdictions that do not impose a duty to retreat from the residence when a defendant uses deadly force in self-defense, if that force is necessary to prevent death or great bodily harm from a co-occupant.").   In 2005, Florida sought to expand the "Castle Doctrine" beyond the confines of the home and passed statute 776.013 (hereinafter the "Stand Your Ground Law"), which provides in pertinent part:
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.         Fla. Stat. § 776.013(3) (2012).
The Stand Your Ground Law acts as an immunity to both criminal and civil liability once it is successfully raised at or before trial by somebody who has been accused of using deadly force.  See Peterson v. State, 983 So.2d 27, 29 (App. Ct. 2008) (holding that "[t]he [Florida] Legislature finds that it is proper for law-abiding people to protect themselves, their families, and others from intruders and attackers without fear of prosecution or civil action for acting in defense of themselves and others.").  Once a person raises this self-defense, "the trial court must determine whether the defendant has shown by a preponderance of the evidence1 that the immunity attaches."  Id.  Once the immunity attaches, it is then the prosecution's burden to prove beyond a reasonable doubt2 that the self-defense should not apply and that the person is guilty of the crime. Montijo v. State, 61 So.3d 424, 427 (App. Ct. 2011).


Florida courts have provided several examples of when the Stand Your Ground Law should apply and, likewise, when it should not apply.  The courts have consistently applied the Stand Your Ground Law where the facts show that the person who used the deadly force as self-defense was being pursued by an attacker.  See Stieh v. State, 67 So.3d 275, 278-79 (App. Ct. April 1, 2011) (finding that the law applied to a 5 foot 5 inch tall, 130 pound man who stabbed a significantly taller and more heavy set man who had entered the smaller man's hotel room, punched him in the face and threatened to kill him for allegedly taking the larger man's money); see also Hair v. State, 17 So.3d 804, 806 (App. Ct. 2009) (finding that the law applied to a man who shot an attacker with a handgun outside of a nightclub as the attacker tried several times to enter the man's vehicle);  see also Williams v. State, 982 So.2d 1190, 1194 (App. Ct. 2008) (holding that the trial court erred when it did not apply the law to a man who shot and killed a victim outside of a nightclub when the man, having recently fought with the victim inside the club, reasonably thought that the victim was approaching him with a gun after the victim exited his car and began walking toward the man).

Conversely, the Florida courts have consistently held that the Stand Your Ground Law does not apply where the facts show that the attacker/would-be-attacker is in the process of retreating away from the person who used the deadly force as self-defense.  See Martinez v. State, 981 So.2d 449, 456-57 (Fla. 2008) (noting that the law would not apply to a man claiming self-defense against his girlfriend where he stabbed his girlfriend in the back); see also State v. Heckman, 993 So.2d 1004, 1006 (App. Ct. 2007) (finding that the law did not apply where a home owner shot his would-be attacker after a heated argument as the man was leaving the home owner's garage and walking back toward his own vehicle to leave).  Similarly, Florida courts have held that the law does not allow individuals to use deadly force as self-defense where the individual provokes the use of force against himself/herself in the first place.  See Cancel v. State, 985 So.2d 1127, 1130 (App. Ct. 2008) (holding that the law did not apply to a man who provoked an altercation between himself and the victim when the man, instead of driving away after the victim threw a bottle at the man's car, got out of his car, walked up to the victim and then engaged in a physical altercation in response to the victim lunging at him).  Indeed, Florida Statute 776.041 specifically states that self-defense is not an option in the case where the person claiming self-defense provoked the altercation in the first place.  Fla. Stat. § 776.041 (2012).


In the instant case, the facts are not clear as to what actually took place during the final moments before Trayvon's death.  We do not know, for example, whether Zimmerman walked up and shot Trayvon in cold blood, or whether, as Zimmerman alleges, Trayvon attacked him from behind as Zimmerman attempted to walk away.  What is clear, however, is that the police dispatcher gave actual notice to Zimmerman to discontinue his pursuit of Trayvon.  This establishes the critical fact that Trayvon was walking away from Zimmerman.  This fact is significant because, as stated above, the Florida courts have held that the self-defense provided by the Stand Your Ground Law does not apply where deadly force is used against an individual who is walking away from the person claiming self-defense.  See Heckman, 993 So.2d at 1006.  Moreover, the Florida courts have also held that the self-defense argument is not available to a person who provokes the encounter in the first place.  See Darling v. State, No. 3D10-122 (App. Ct. Feb. 29, 2012) (holding that the "[j]ustification for using deadly force in self defense, which includes the "stand your ground" defense, does not apply to a person who provokes the attack.") (emphasis supplied). Here, it is beyond dispute that whatever occurred between Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman -- whether it was Zimmerman attacking Martin or Martin attacking Zimmerman -- only occurred because Zimmerman chose to get out of his car and confront Martin.  In other words, Zimmerman provoked the confrontation. Thus, a court will likely hold that Zimmerman may not avail himself of the Stand Your Ground Law.3
It is unlikely that a Florida court will hold that Florida's "Stand Your Ground" statute allows an armed Florida resident to claim self-defense in the shooting of an unarmed resident when the armed resident pursued and confronted the unarmed resident after being told by the police to stand down.  Therefore, a Florida court will likely hold that the Stand Your Ground Law does not apply to the Trayvon Martin case.4

1 - "Preponderance of the evidence" is a legal term that refers to a standard of proof that a Court may require one to meet in order to prove something.  It requires that one prove that a particular argument is simply "more likely true than not" before the court will accept it as true. In other words, it requires a 51% chance that a particular argument is correct. This is a low burden of proof and is typically used in civil cases.
2 - "Beyond a reasonable doubt" is a legal term that refers to the standard of proof required for a criminal conviction.  It is a high burden and requires what is effectively a 99% chance that a person is guilty of a particular crime before they can be convicted.
3 - It is notable to observe that Florida's provocation rule has 2 exceptions: (1) a person who provokes an altercation can still claim self-defense if the instigator reasonably believes that they are in imminent danger of death and they have exhausted every possible means to escape; and (2) a person who provokes an altercation can still claim self-defense if, after provoking the altercation, the instigator attempts to walk away and the victim pursues him/her.  The first exception is negated by the size of the individuals (Zimmerman @ 250 lbs vs. Martin @ 130 lbs. - Zimmerman could have easily overpowered Martin without use of deadly force).  With respect to the second exception, we have no facts, other than Zimmerman's account, that establish that Zimmerman attempted to walk away after confronting Martin and that Martin then pursued and attacked him.  Moreover, such a defense is likely negated by the fact that (A) Zimmerman is significantly larger than Martin and (B) Zimmerman was armed with a 9mm whereas Martin was unarmed.
4 - Although not central to this discussion, it should be noted that the determination of whether the Stand Your Ground Law applies or not is ultimately one that is made by the Courts, not the police department.  The standard criminal procedure is to arrest any defendant who kills someone else and detain him or her until a court or the state attorneys make a determination to release the defendant.  (Eg. A 69 year-old Black man,Trevor Dooley, was arrested after shooting a 41 year-old White man, David James).
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