The Whole at the Center of the Trayvon Martin Case

by A. Jay Adler on March 29, 2012
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The two central elements of the Trayvon Martin controversy have been race and “Stand Your Ground” (SYG) laws. I have focused on the legal element, as a non-lawyer considering the reasoning and politics behind SYG. Florida law, it is said, adds the additional factor of a presumption in favor of a person claiming to have stood his ground. This is what is stated, for instance, at the web site of the Slavin Law Firm of Tampa Bay, which I cited the other day:

The “Stand Your Ground” Law introduced two (2) conclusive presumptions that favor a criminal defendant who is making a self-defense claim:

The presumption that the defendant had a reasonable fear that deadly force was necessary; and

The presumption that the intruder intended to commit an unlawful act involving force or violence.

These two presumptions protect the defender from both civil and criminal prosecution for unlawful use of deadly or non-deadly force in self-defense. In addition, the defender/gun owner has no duty to retreat, regardless of where he is attacked, so long as he is in a place where he is lawfully entitled to be when the danger occurs.

There is some patently confusing language in this explanation. Reference to a “criminal defendant who is making a self-defense claim” indicates an arrest and a prosecution. However, the statement “[t]hese two presumptions protect the defender from both civil and criminal prosecution” contradicts this explanation. The latter circumstance is what so far has prevailed in the case of George Zimmerman.

There is some patently confusing language in this explanation. Reference to a “criminal defendant who is making a self-defense claim” indicates an arrest and a prosecution. However, the statement “[t]hese two presumptions protect the defender from both civil and criminal prosecution” contradicts this explanation. The latter circumstance is what so far has prevailed in the case of George Zimmerman.

Here is the actual relevant language of the statute:

776.012 Use of force in defense of person.—A person is justified in using force, except deadly force, against another when and to the extent that the person reasonably believes that such conduct is necessary to defend himself or herself or another against the other’s imminent use of unlawful force. However, a person is justified in the use of deadly force and does not have a duty to retreat if:

(1) He or she reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the imminent commission of a forcible felony; or

(2) Under those circumstances permitted pursuant to s. 776.013.

History.—s. 13, ch. 74-383; s. 1188, ch. 97-102; s. 2, ch. 2005-27.

776.013 Home protection; use of deadly force; presumption of fear of death or great bodily harm.—

(1) A person is presumed to have held a reasonable fear of imminent peril of death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another when using defensive force that is intended or likely to cause death or great bodily harm to another if:

(a) The person against whom the defensive force was used was in the process of unlawfully and forcefully entering, or had unlawfully and forcibly entered, a dwelling, residence, or occupied vehicle, or if that person had removed or was attempting to remove another against that person’s will from the dwelling, residence, or occupied vehicle; and

(b) The person who uses defensive force knew or had reason to believe that an unlawful and forcible entry or unlawful and forcible act was occurring or had occurred.

An SYG claim is dependent on

a reasonable fear of imminent peril of death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another.

That is, you may stand your ground, without a duty to retreat, if you have this reasonable fear. In Chapter 776.013 it is presumed that the individual who used lethal force had this fear, without his having to prove it. However, Chapter 776.013 is specifically in reference to “home protection” and the like, where the Castle Doctrine and a lower burden traditionally and legally applies. SYG statutes are said legally to extend the rights of place and self-defense from the home to any other place one rightfully occupies, such as even a public street. Since, again, I am not a lawyer, and specifically not a lawyer versed in Florida law, there is perhaps some other basis of transference of the presumption of reasonable fear from the home to the street, but one has to note that the presumption is a specific term in Chapter 776.013, on home protection, and is not a term in the preceding Chapter 776.012, which is about defense of your person, not of your home – the circumstance of the Zimmerman-Martin encounter. It may be deemed reasonable to presume that a person unlawfully entering your home is a threat to you, just by that act of illegal entry. Presuming the same threat on a public street where both parties have a right to be should be a more difficult proposition.

To repeat, it is striking that the presumption of reasonable fear is not part of the language of Chapter 776.012 as it is in Chapter 776.013. I find it difficult to believe that this difference is not in any way relevant. But, once more, I have not the legal expertise and there may be some basis of which I am unprofessionally ignorant for extending the presumption as the Slavin Law Firm does in its explanation.

It does not matter, because even that is not the whole at the center of the case.

Even in the case of SYG, even regarding a killing in a home, there are still facts to be determined. The person I am claiming I killed breaking into my home may be a lover I murdered in anger. He may a business associate I murdered on the street and dragged into the house in order to make a home invasion claim. Duty to retreat or stand your ground, there are still facts to be determined. Even by Florida’s uncertain application of “presumption,” to presume reasonable fear based on established circumstance is not the same as to presume the truth of the claim as to what the circumstances are. The police and D.A. still need to do a reasonable investigation of the circumstances that led to the death. Simply accepting the claim of someone who used lethal force that he was standing his ground is not the presumption of which the statute speaks.

Did the police interview neighbors who might have overheard an encounter? We read that there are such neighbors. We hear of a phone conversation by Martin with his girlfriend. If Martin had a cell phone on him, did the police check for recent calls and contact the other parties to any recent calls? Did they review before they made the determination to release Zimmerman the 911 call during which he ignored directions not to follow Martin? What investigation did the police do independent of merely accepting Zimmerman’s account of events?

Whatever one’s thoughts about stand your ground laws, and I expressed mine the other day, indications now are that the terms of the law have not so far, in fact, properly determined the outcome of what has passed for an investigation. If Florida law enforcement is applying SYG as if it directs that any uncontradicted claim of an SYG defense must be accepted simply on the basis of the claim, without an investigation of the events, then that both defies reason and appears not to be supported by the language of the statute.

Why SYG laws are being promoted and why the law is being interpreted as it is in Florida are separate matters – why it has been interpreted in this manner in relation to George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin still one more.

AJA

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