The Trayvon Martin Shooting and the Uncertain Future of ‘Stand Your Ground’ Laws

It is well known (and quite frankly flooding the media lately) about the tragic shooting of Trayvon Martin.  People most often discuss the racial tensions surrounding the shooting of Trayvon Martin by the [white] self-appointed neighborhood watchman, George Zimmerman.  What I would like to briefly discuss, however, are the implications of the law that could lead to the (some would say improper) acquittal of George Zimmerman in Florida, and what this may mean for other states that employ “Stand Your Ground” type laws.  Also, since this is an Indiana law blog, I will briefly discuss the similarities between the Florida law and the current laws on the books in the State of Indiana.

There are at least a few legal concepts that are at work here.  The first is a common law doctrine known as the “Castle Doctrine.”  The “Castle Doctrine” was first established by common law (judicial precedents) in the Nineteenth Century.  What the “Castle Doctrine” stands for is the notion that “a man’s home is his castle”.  Under the Doctrine, a person is not criminally liable for criminal acts in defense of one’s person or home.  Under this doctrine, the defender, if charged with a crime such as murder or battery for instance, must plead the doctrine as an affirmative defense.  In other words, the defendant must prove the defense by a preponderance of the evidence in order to defeat charges actually being filed against him or her.

The second legal concept at play here is the right to defend yourself or another person by using “reasonable force” to prevent or stop an attack.   Just like the first concept, self defense or defense of others is an affirmative defense that must be asserted and proven by the defendant by a preponderance of the evidence.

Unlike these concepts, Florida (and Indiana) have what have been referred to as “Stand Your Ground” laws.  These are usually statutes enacted by the state’s legislature which expand or change the procedure by which defenses arise.  In this particular instance, the Florida law (and the Indiana law) both shift the burden of proof from the defendant to the prosecution.  This means that, instead of the defendant himself having to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that he committed the crime(s) in self defense or defense of others, the prosecution must instead prove–beyond any reasonable doubt–that the defendant DID NOT commit the crime(s) in question in self defense or in the defense of others.

Also, in both states the respective “Stand Your Ground” laws create much broader protections than the “Castle Doctrine” or the self defense affirmative defense ever did.  Under Indiana as well as Florida law, one falls within the protections while in the curtilage of one’s home, in one’s automobile, or out in the open when the person reasonably believes that the attacker presents a threat to the person.  (The curtilage is an important legal term to define the land immediately surrounding a house or dwelling, including any closely associated buildings and structures, but excluding any associated ‘open fields beyond’. It defines the boundary within which a home owner can have a reasonable expectation of privacy and where ‘intimate home activities’ take place.  The most common example of a curtilage is a garage.)

Where the reasonably believes the attacker may cause death or serious bodily injury, the person can legally utilize deadly force.  Without the threat of death or serious bodily injury the person can defend only utilizing “reasonable force”.

These statutes, while conceived with good intentions, can lead to strange or erroneous results as we have seen (or may likely see) in the Trayvon Martin case.  In Florida as well as in Indiana, a person is even justified in using “reasonable force” to protect personal property.  Some legal scholars even claim that under certain circumstances a person could be justified in battery or homicide purely in defense of property under the statute(s).

But regardless of the implications in what some may say is overreaching in the law, it is unclear at this point whether George Zimmerman was within the protections afforded by the Florida Statute.  Some evidence indicates he chased Trayvon Martin after being repeatedly cautioned to cease his pursuit while other evidence seems to suggest that Zimmerman broke off his surveillance and was returning to his truck when he was confronted by Trayvon on the sidewalk. The outcome will depend solely on which scenario can be proven.  It would be difficult at best to argue that Zimmerman was within the protections of a defense statute if he, in fact, was the aggressor.  What do you think?  Feel free to post comments below.

If you have a criminal question and would like an Indiana attorney to explain Indiana criminal law, call us at SFT Lawyers for an answer.  We have attorneys with a wide array of experience in a variety of legal practice areas.  CALL FOR A FREE CONSULTATION TODAY.  (219) 841-5683.