Monday, March 26, 2012
There are plenty of great discussions on this tragic event and a whole lot of speculation. I want to focus on an area that I actually know something about, self-defense laws. The media, as is typical, seems to be asking the wrong questions and doing very little in terms of research. One question that has popped up deals with Florida's "stand your ground law" and asks if the law goes too far. The simple answer is No, but I will get more into the details later. The other obvious question is whether this law would allow someone to chase down an unarmed person and kill them. Again, the simple answer is No.
From what I can tell, Florida's self-defense laws are very similar to those in Michigan. That being said, I am not familiar with Florida law and Case law. I will mostly discuss Michigan law and try to generalize. Fortunately, for our discussion, self-defense laws are very similar across the 50 states.
So, when can a person use lethal force? Basically, if it is necessary to prevent an imminent attack that could cause death or serious injury, or a sexual assault. This is the common law rule that has mostly stayed the same for hundreds of years. Most states kept this and never bothered to codify it. A small minority of states also had a duty to retreat in a narrow set of circumstances. This said that if a person reasonably believes that they are facing an imminent threat of death, serious bodily injury, rape, kidnapping, or, in many states robbery and some other crimes from another person, and:
1. they can escape this threat with complete safety,
2. by leaving the altercation,
3. except when they are in their own home (or, in some states, workplace),
4. a person does not have the right to engage in lethal self-defense because such lethal self-defense is no longer necessary given the availability of a safe retreat.
It is important to note that this was only the rule in a handful of states. Most had rejected this prior to the 'stand your ground' laws or had limited to very specific situations.
There is also another principle that may be relevant. Florida has what is called an aggressor exception to self-defense. It states that self defense is not available to a person that:
(1) Initially provokes the use of force against himself or herself, unless:
(a) Such force is so great that the person reasonably believes that he or she is in imminent danger of death or great bodily harm and that he or she has exhausted every reasonable means to escape such danger other than the use of force which is likely to cause death or great bodily harm to the assailant; or
(b) In good faith, the person withdraws from physical contact with the assailant and indicates clearly to the assailant that he or she desires to withdraw and terminate the use of force, but the assailant continues or resumes the use of force.
So, if it turns out that Zimmerman was chasing Martin or trying to detain him, then lethal force would be highly questionable and he would have had a duty to retreat from Martin. I found this information with a minimal amount of searching and wonder why it has been absent from any media coverage. I caught part of the Diane Rehm Show on NPR. She is typically pretty biased when it comes to guns and self-defense, so it wasn't a complete surprise that the discussion omitted much of the reality of what the law says when it comes to self-defense.
I can't make any guesses as to what will happen in this case because many of the facts are in dispute, but I can say that it does not appear that Florida law or case law encouraged or allowed this to happen. On the contrary, almost every watch group discourages confrontation and trains people to be good observers. Every reputable firearms instructor emphasizes that a gun is a tool of last resort and that you don't look for trouble or knowingly put yourself in situations where you need to defend yourself.
My concern is that groups will use this to push for changes in laws that are completely unnecessary.