Stand Your Ground – The Return of the Wild West

NRA Death for Profit

Image credit Flickr user the|G|™

We’re proud to feature this article written by Picked Last reader John de Leon about the Stand Your Ground laws in Florida and elsewhere. Given that the laws are deservedly getting  attention in their role in the Zimmerman acquittal and activists are mobilizing to repeal said laws, we thought it timely to bring you own analysis. -Timmy

George Zimmerman’s recent acquittal represents is just another decision in a series of bizarre outcomes since Florida’s legislature passed its “stand your ground” statute seven years ago. The Tampa Bay Times recently did a comprehensive study of nearly 200 “stand your ground” cases and found:

  • 70% of “stand your ground” defendants were either acquitted or were not charged.
  • 73% defendants prevailed when the victim was black compared to a 59% rate when the victim was white.
  • The website lists several questionable cases where defendants successfully raised “stand your ground” as a defense and were either acquitted, granted immunity, or were not prosecuted.

These results show that the “stand your ground” laws are doing precisely what their authors believed the laws would do: increase gun violence. These laws were pushed by gun companies and their lobbying arms (ALEC and the NRA) because, in all honesty, what good is having a gun if you don’t get to use it. The traditional definition of self-defense was necessarily restrictive and both limited potential consumers along with exposing their consumers to the ultimate gamble should they use their weapons on others: the possibility of life imprisonment.

The “stand your ground” laws changed that and provided civil and criminal immunity along with creating presumptions which are extremely difficult to overcome in our legal system because of (a) the prosecution’s “beyond reasonable doubt” burden of proof and (b) evidentiary problems which are detailed below.

Traditional Self-Defense

California’s self-defense law, largely modeled on traditional common law self-defense, consists of three elements:

  1. Defendant reasonably believed that he or someone else was in imminent danger of suffering bodily injury,
  2. Defendant reasonably believed that the immediate use of force was necessary to defend against that danger, AND
  3. Defendant used no more force than was reasonably necessary to defend against that danger.

These elements evolved in a way to restrict self-defense to circumstances where the law sees the use of force as absolutely necessary and, even then, provided immunity only when the force used is reasonable. The law’s restrictive evolution came about because, often times, self-defense cases involved death and a jury hearing the case would necessarily be deprived of the testimony of the victim. Cases would essentially be he-said, she-said featuring the self-serving testimony of the killer and the dead body of the victim. The problems with evidence necessitated a restrictive as an expansive self-defense definition would encourage vigilantism (i.e., citizens taking the law into their own hands).

“Stand Your Ground” Changes

The influential conservative policy group, the American Legislative Exchange Council (“ALEC”) Civil Justice Task adopted Castle Doctrine Act model legislation in August 2005. The legislation, virtually identical to Florida’s statute, has since been passed by 16 other states.

The Act, relevantly, states:

“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… if he reasonably believes it is necessary to prevent death or great bodily harm…”

The Act awards civil and criminal immunity from prosecution along with attorney’s fees, court costs, and compensation for loss of income in civil cases.

Consequences

The “stand your ground” laws’ recent passage make it so that judges and juries do not have the benefit of hundreds of years of judicial evolution to draw upon when encountering new fact patterns. This means that modern interpretation can vary widely between two prosecutors, two judges, and two sets of juries ensuring widely varying applications of the law. Consequently, personal biases have been shown to play a statistically significant role.

The “stand your ground” laws’ focus on the immediate moment seem to ignore the entire set of circumstances which produce seemingly paradoxical results.

The common laws’ tendency to expand exceptions to cover more circumstances combine with the “stand your ground” laws’ purpose to expand traditional self-defense and the variance in application produce a jurisdiction with a wider berth for the justifiable taking of human life.

Finally, the “stand your ground” laws remove the “reasonable use of force” requirement. This means that the law in these states do not require the use of a lesser amount of force, if available, to stop a threat.

TL;DR: The laws were pushed and passed to make the taking of human life more common in order to sell more guns.

John de Leon is a lawyer based in the LA area. He volunteers with the Filipino Migrant Center and works on housing issues for low-income residents.

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