This post is actually a research paper I wrote for a criminal class while in undergrad. It is about the “Stand Your Ground” law that has been under a great deal of public scrutiny since the death of Travon Martin in 2012.
On February 25, 2012 at approximately 7:09 pm, George Zimmerman called the Sanford, Florida police department to report “suspicious behavior” by Trayvon Martin. Mr. Zimmerman was advised by the police dispatcher to refrain from following Martin after telling the dispatcher that Martin had started running. Around the same time Trayvon Martin’s girlfriend called him on his cell phone (Surge, Robertson, & Alverez, 2012). They talked for approximately three minutes. In the course of their conversation, Martin informed his girlfriend that he spotted a strange man following him. She advised him to run and overheard him exchange words with George Zimmerman, overheard sounds of pushing, and then his headset went silent. After trying to call him back, she couldn’t reach him (Surge, Robertson, & Alverez, 2012). At approximately the same time, neighbors began to call 911 to report an altercation they overheard (and in some cases saw) between Martin and Zimmerman. By the time police arrived, the altercation was over and Martin was dead from a gun shot to the chest from Zimmerman’s gun (Stutzman, 2012). All of this, including the police taking George Zimmerman to the police station to question him, took place in less than three hours (Stutzman, 2012).
On August 1, 2010, Marissa Alexander’s husband became enraged after discovering text messages that she had written to her ex-husband and began strangling her (Hadad, 2012) (WJXT-TV, 2012). After getting loose from his grip, she ran to the garage intending to get in her truck and drive away. When she made it to the garage, she discovered that she forgot her keys in the house. Sensing that going back into the house would lead to another altercation, she grabbed her gun for protection. When she re-entered the house her husband threatened to kill her, so she shot a warning shot into the air to scare him. When he heard the shot, her husband took his two children and left. Her husband admitted, at the time, to having a history of violence against women. He admits to beating all of his five “baby mamas” and says that he once beat Alexander so bad that he put her in the hospital and wound up in jail. Even though no one was hurt or killed in this incident, Marissa Alexander now sits in jail and could face twenty years in prison (Hadad, 2012) (WJXT-TV, 2012).
The purpose of this research is not retry the above cases but examine a controversial piece of legislature that they have in common. Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law. Because of this law, George Zimmerman almost avoided arrest and trial for his part in the death in the death of Trayvon Martin. Marissa Alexander tried to use this law in her case to avoid prosecution, and the court threw it out in her case. Both of these incidents took place in the state of Florida.
Senate Bill 436 was signed into law in April of 2005 by Governor Jeb Bush. The law is meant to expand and explain the self-defense rights of citizen’s of the state of Florida against violent attackers (Wallace, 2006). “Stand Your Ground” laws state that a “person may use force in self-defense when there is a reasonable belief of a threat, without obligation to retreat first” (Jansen & Nugent-Borakove, 2007). Florida’s version of the law allows for deadly force in cases where the victim has reason to believe that his/her life is in danger (Jansen & Nugent-Borakove, 2007). Twenty-three of fifty states have enacted some sort of castle doctrine legislation from 2005 to 2008 (Boots, Bihari, & Elliot, 2009). Eleven states have considered castle doctrine legislation since 2005 but have yet to pass it (Boots, Bihari, & Elliot, 2009).
Castle doctrine, the formal name for “Stand Your Ground “laws, has its origins in English common law when a man’s home was considered to be his “castle” (Jansen & Nugent-Borakove, 2007). The whole idea was that home was considered to be a sanctuary from danger and each man has a right or duty to protect it. This doctrine gave men (and women) the right to use force, even deadly force; in order to make sure his “sanctuary” was (is) protected against intruders (Jansen & Nugent-Borakove, 2007). In 1914, Judge Benjamin N. Cardozo instituted the “no obligation to retreat” portion of the doctrine. According to research, castle doctrine seems to have ties to the Second Amendment “right to bear arms” (Boots, Bihari, & Elliot, 2009).
Florida’s expansion includes the right to use force anywhere the person has a right to be. And it forbids the arrest of any person the police determine to have acted in self-defense. This means that the police can make the decision, at the scene of the confrontation, that arrest isn’t necessary because the person acted in self-defense. The law also gives the person criminal or civil immunity and offers attorney’s fees, courts costs, and compensation for loss of income, and all expenses incurred by the person in defense of any civil action by the injured party or his family in the event of the his/her death. The law is not supposed to apply if the person is attempting to commit, committing, or escaping after committing a forcible felony or initially provokes the use of force against him/herself unless they’ve exhausted every reasonable means to escape danger other than the use of force which is likely to cause death or great harm to the assailant (Jansen & Nugent-Borakove, 2007). Or if “in good faith” they withdrew from physical contact with the assailant and made it clear to the assailant that they desire to withdraw and terminate the use of force (Jansen & Nugent-Borakove, 2007).
The problem seems to be that a lot of cases where defendants that use “Stand Your Ground” laws were cases where the defendant was advised by police dispatchers not to confront the suspect (Horn vs. State) (Boots, Bihari, & Elliot, 2009), or shoot at people who are a threat to them selves or others (Montanez vs. State)(Wallace, 2006), or shoot at people who haven’t threatened them and really mean them no harm at all and wanted to ask them a question (Quaggin vs. State) (Jansen & Nugent-Borakove, 2007). One major concern is that the laws don’t really deter criminal behavior and might increase vigilantism. One study found that justified homicide is on the rise since 2005 (Boots, Bihari, & Elliot, 2009) showing a slight increase from 2003 to 2007. Justified homicides involving a firearm (the weapon of choice in most “Stand Your Ground” cases) have also increased steadily since 2005 with 75% to 82% of justified homicides involving the use of a firearm (Boots, Bihari, & Elliot, 2009). An interesting fact is Florida was the first state to enact new castle doctrine laws in response to NRA lobbying in 2005 (Boots, Bihari, & Elliot, 2009).
At first glance, castle doctrine law reads like a good law for those who are actually defending their lives. Researchers are currently examining whether or not the expansions to castle doctrine law are of any benefit to domestic violence victims (like Marissa Alexander) and only one study deals with this matter (Jansen & Nugent-Borakove, 2007). And according to that study, there seemed to be no direct benefit to women who live with their batterers (Jansen & Nugent-Borakove, 2007). The complication seems to stem from whether or not a woman’s response to her attacker is reasonable and the study indicated the law seemed to ignore the dynamics of ongoing abuse (Jansen & Nugent-Borakove, 2007).
The effects on community policing have already been seen with both Trayvon Martin’s case and that of Marissa Alexander in that it seems open old wounds of racial injustice and concerns about uneven application of the law, especially along racial and class lines.
Boots, D. P., Bihari, J., & Elliot, E. (2009). The State of the Castle: An Overview of Recent Trends in State Castle Doctrine. Criminal Justice Review, 515-535.
Hadad, C. (2012, April 24). “Stand Your Ground” law under scruntiny in Domestic Violence Case. CNN.com, pp. 1-2.
Jansen, S., & Nugent-Borakove, M. (2007). Expansions to the Castle Doctrine: Implications for Policy and Practice. National District Attorneys Association (pp. 3-23). Alexandria,Va.: National District Attorneys Association.
Kuo, V. (2012, March 15). Fatal shooting of Florida teen turned over to State Attorney. CNN.com, pp. 1-2.
Stutzman, R. (2012, April 2). Trayvon Martin facts vs. Rumors. Orlando Sentinel, pp. 1-3.
Surge, D. B., Robertson, C., & Alverez, L. (2012, April 1). Race, Tragedy and Outrage Collide After a Shot in Florida. New York Times, pp. 1-7.
Wallace, P. A. (2006, Fall). Stand Your Ground: New Challenges for Forensic Psychologists. The Forensic Examiner, pp. 37-41.
WJXT-TV. (2012, April). As Supporters Rally, Woman Asks for New Trial . MSN.com, p. 1.