Research Paper: Stand Your Ground Law: Criminal Justice

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Stand Your Ground Laws

The 13th of July 2013 marked the boil of the controversy surrounding Stand Your Ground laws; the laws that grant people the right to use lethal force in self-defense, without having to retreat, and "which have proliferated since the NRA successfully lobbied the Florida Legislature to pass the first in 2005" (Mayors against Illegal Guns 2). On this day, a Florida court acquitted George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch captain, of the various charges relating to the controversial killing of Trayvon Martin, a black weaponless 17-year-old he had shot on the 26th of February, the previous year. The jury held that, in accordance with Florida's expansive statute governing self-defense, Zimmerman had exercised his right by standing his ground and using force to meet force, and had, hence, committed no unlawful activity. The acquittal sent the public and civil society groups into frenzy, forcing stakeholders in the 24 states that operate Stand Your Grand Laws to embark on repealing or scaling back attempts. What stands out in Martin's case, and others discussed in the context of this text, is that Stand Your Ground Laws are more of an invitation to kill than they are a protective measure; they impede on justice and public safety just as they increase the rates of justifiable homicides, but worse still, it is the minority groups that disproportionately bear the brunt of this increase.

Historical Background of Stand Your Ground Laws

The Duty to Retreat: Wible (124-125) expresses that the duty to retreat, embedded in America's Common Law, provided the basis for all self-defense laws in existence today. It requires an individual under threat to retreat before justifiably killing their attacker (Mayors against Illegal Guns 3).

The Castle Doctrine: this was an exception to the duty to retreat; under it, people would not have to execute the duty to retreat when threatened at their homes (Mayors against Illegal Guns 2).

Under these two principles of self-defense, Americans had the "legal right to 'stand their ground' and use non-deadly force to protect themselves from an attacker, as long as their use of force was reasonably necessary" (Mayors against Illegal Guns 3). The duty to retreat encouraged the use of measures other than taking the life of another person, and although deadly force was justifiable in some circumstances, it was to be used only as the last resort (Wible 124).

Stand Your Ground Laws effectively inverted these traditional self-defense principles, allowing people to make use of lethal force even in social places. Havis (120) points out that there have been a number of instances where defendants have raised the claim of self-defense, even when it was apparent that the death in question would not have occurred had the defendant safely left the area.

Stand Your Ground Laws are often falsely labeled 'Castle Doctrine Provisions,' but as the Mayors against Illegal Guns (3-4) point out, the former go beyond own-home defense; it turns out that these are applicable anywhere, making them the rule, more than they are exceptions to the Castle Doctrine. Today, it is quite common for confrontation in entertainment joints, playgrounds or highways to escalate into dangerous shoot-outs; but what is even more common is those responsible for deaths occurring at such scenes evading "prosecution and conviction by asserting that they acted in self-defense" (Mayors against Illegal Guns 3). To this end, Stand Your Ground rules, unlike the traditional self-defense principles, raise both ethical and justice-related concerns, as has been enumerated in the subsequent sections of this text.

Ethical Issues Surrounding Stand Your Ground Laws

This section analyzes the Ethical Issues posed by Stand Your Ground Law, on the basis of the six components that differentiate it from the traditional principles of self-defense. It would be prudent to mention that the application of the Stand Your Ground Law differs from state to state, and that, moreover, different states have adopted different component combinations. However, for purposes of simplicity, this text will consider a state a Stand Your Ground jurisdiction "if its statute allows a person to use lethal force against another in any place he has the legal right to be - so long as he reasonably believed that he, or someone else, faced imminent death or great bodily harm" (Lee).

Allowing the Use of Deadly Force in Public Places

Stand Your Ground jurisdictions permit shooters to make use of lethal force, even when the circumstances provide safe opportunities for them to retreat, so long as they have a right to be at that particular place (Mayors against Illegal Guns 4). One could then ask; what about the other people, who have nothing to do with the scuffle, but also have the right to be at that place? As Lee points out, Stand Your Ground jurisdictions, as unreasonable as it may seem, would, for instance, allow a driver attacked in his car to shoot their attacker, even when they have the more reasonable option of simply driving away.

Allowing the Use of Lethal Force in the defense of Property

Of the 24 Stand Your Ground states, nine allow individuals to kill in property defense, even if the attack poses no physical danger (Mayors against Illegal Guns 4). Property defense can be categorized into two; four states permit the use of lethal force in protecting personal property, including money and cell phones, regardless of value; six allow their citizens to use deadly force in the protection of unoccupied premises from burglary, even when the shooter does not own the compromised building, or knows that there is no one inside (Mayors against Illegal Guns 4). Contrary to the arguments put forward by those who advocate for Stand Your Ground Laws, empirical research indicates that these laws do little to deter crime. As a matter of fact, a study by economists at Texas A&M University found no notable differences in the rates of robbery and burglary between Stand Your Ground states and the rest of the country (Lee).

Creation of the Presumption that Shootings are Permissible and Just

Arizona and Texas are the two states in which shooting in self-defense is permitted everywhere (Mayors against Illegal Guns 4). As is the norm, a defendant is considered innocent, until the prosecutor convinces a jury otherwise, beyond any doubt deemed reasonable (Havis 120). In the case of Stand Your Ground law, this presumption is sufficiently irrefutable, forcing "authorities to take the shooter at his or her word, regardless of how unlikely and unsubstantiated the shooter's version of events may be" (Mayors against Illegal Guns 5). The situation gets worse if the victim dies, and there are neither eye witnesses nor recordings to attest to the shooting (Havis 120; Mayors against Illegal Guns 5).

Criminal Immunity

i) Preventing Shooters' Arrests

Trayvon Martin's provides a perfect illustration of a case where law enforcers cannot arrest, or even detain the individual accused of pulling the trigger, in which case such an individual claims self-defense, before they obtain evidence that disproves this claim (Lee). For this reason, George Zimmerman comfortably spends the night of 26th February, 2012, out of a police cell after shooting and killing an unarmed teen, despite eyewitnesses' reports (Wible 124). The challenge lies in evaluating the validity of the suspect's claim - there are no clear-cut guidelines governing the handling of suspects who make self-defense claims, thus creating uncertainty and confusion, and in the end "making police less likely to arrest and prosecutors less likely to prosecute shooters who claim self-defense" (Mayors against Illegal Guns 5).

ii) Immunity Hearings

Eight Stand Your Ground states have statutes that shield a person from prosecution even after they have been arrested (Mayors against Illegal Guns 5). This has been interpreted as a provision of criminal immunity that entitles a Stand Your Ground suspect to a pretrial hearing, in which case evidence is presented, and the judge, as opposed to a jury, determines whether or not the suspect indeed acted out of self-defense (Mayors against Illegal Guns 5). Research indicates that these immunity hearings, in most cases, do not achieve the intention for which they were enacted -- protecting "law-biding citizens from uncertainty while they wait for the government to prosecute them for shootings they claimed were for self-defense;" some shooters are reported to have waited for this decision for more than a year (Mayors against Illegal Guns 5). The underlying issue, however, remains that a case involving someone's death is left to be decided by a lone judge rather than by a jury; and the presumption that shootings are lawful is only reinforced further (Mayors against Illegal Guns 5).

iii) The Prohibition of Civil Lawsuits

Typically, the justice system provides platforms through which injured parties can seek redress and compensation for damages or injuries inflicted on them by other parties (Lee). However, as Mayors against Illegal Guns (6-7) point out, 19 of the 22 Stand Your Ground states sufficiently bar civil suits against Stand Your Ground shooters. Such civil lawsuit restrictions take various forms; eleven operate blanket immunity, in which case the… [END OF PREVIEW]

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