Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Is Stand Your Ground a License to Kill?

George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin on February 26, 2012. Trayvon, a seventeen-year-old high school junior, was visiting his father, who lives in the same neighborhood as Zimmerman in Sanford, Florida.  On the walk back from 7-Eleven after buying Skittles and iced tea for himself and his younger brother, he encountered Zimmerman.  

Zimmerman, a member of the neighborhood watch, was sitting in his car and observed what he believed as Trayvon looking suspicious.  Zimmerman called the police informing them that he saw a suspicious looking person walking around the neighborhood “looking at all the houses.”  He later clarified that the person he was watching was a black male.  Zimmerman told police that the black male appeared to be “up to no good…[and] was on drugs or something.”  The 911 dispatcher instructed Zimmerman to stay in his car and not to follow the individual.  Instead of listening to the dispatcher’s instructions, he got out the car, and pursued Trayvon.  After a short struggle, there was a gunshot and the unarmed Trayvon Martin lay dead in the street.

There is no “alleged shooting” in this case.  Zimmerman has admitted to shooting and killing Trayvon.  However, he was not arrested at the scene and he has not subsequently been arrested or charged with any crime.  How can someone who admittedly shot a child dead in the street still be free?  Zimmerman claims he was acting in self-defense, and the Sanford Police Department maintains that they do not have sufficient evidence to contradict this.

In most traditional self-defense cases, there are four elements that must be met: (1) the individual must not have been the initial aggressor; (2) the threat must be present; (3) the force used must be (proportional) reasonable to the threat; and (4) deadly force cannot be used unless the threat was deadly.  Also, in most cases an individual has a duty to retreat, meaning that if the person can run and avoid the confrontation, then he/she must do so.  However, Florida, along with sixteen other states, have enacted what are known as “stand your ground” laws, which is a modified form of self-defense.  These laws essentially allow the use of deadly force in places outside of one’s home if one is attacked and believes his or her life is in danger.  The stand your ground laws generally allow a person to use deadly force if they reasonably believe they are in danger, and there is no duty to retreat.

Most observers believe that Florida’s stand your ground law is what is protecting Zimmerman from prosecution.  But does this law really protect Zimmerman?  The stand your ground law requires that the person be attacked before they use reasonable force.  Was Zimmerman actually attacked by Trayvon?  In his 911 call, he did not express that he had seen a weapon on Trayvon.  He merely thought Trayvon looked like he was up to no good.  Is it reasonable to believe that an individual who is walking around “looking suspicious” is putting someone’s life in danger? 

In response to national outrage surrounding this case, the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division and the FBI announced that they would investigate the case.  Hopefully this will lead to a thorough investigation and the arrest of George Zimmerman for the killing of Trayvon Martin. 

Bethany Peak
Blogger, Criminal Law Brief


  1. Reading about this tragedy reminded me of the Werdesheim brothers case currently being tried in the Baltimore Circuit Court. Both Avi and Eliyahu were reported to be members of a Shomrin, a Jewish Orthodox community watch group. During one of their regular patrols, the two spotted a young black man walking through their neighborhood and allegedly threw him to the ground and beat him over the head with a two-way radio all while yelling that he, “didn’t belong here,”referring to their neighborhood. Despite the infuriated outcry from the public, especially the black community, the prosecuting attorney dropped the most serious felony charge and refused to charge the act as a hate crime.

    This pattern of refusing to charge neighborhood watch groups with the actual crimes they commit only provides a governmental endorsement of vigilante justice. Especially when race is involved, prosecutors should take special care to recognize the message they are sending to the community when charging lesser crimes, or in the case of Treyvon Martin, not charging crimes at all.

    Link to Werdesheim brothers case:

  2. I totally agree with Ali’s comment. With all the attention that this case is now receiving, I bet Zimmerman will eventually face charges. I also think there should be an investigation into how the Sanford Police Department handled the case. Martin’s parents were not notified of Martin's murder for THREE days, even though Martin’s parents could easily be located by his cell phone that he possessed at the time of his murder. Additionally, what sense does it make to test Martin’s body for drugs and alcohol, but not Zimmerman? Not to say that this goes towards charging Zimmerman, but it gives the appearance that, as Ali said, the officers condoned such behavior. Finally, after hearing the 911 calls from various witnesses, I really do not see how the Police Department can claim that there is not enough probable cause to arrest Zimmerman. Hopefully in due time, justice will be served.

  3. It is a shame that it has taken at least three weeks for the FBI and DOJ to take action and announce their intent to investigate the case. Fortunately, the protests from the community seem to have made an impact and can hope that the adequate attention be played to this case.

  4. This stand your ground law is crazy.

  5. If what we heard is true so far about the circumstances in this case, an actual police officer should not approach a suspect alone anyways, unless they were doing something that mandated an immediate response because of the officer safety issues involved. This tragedy stinks of poor police work and investigation.

  6. This case is tragic and your passion is understandable. However, I caution you to withhold judgement until you know all of the facts. Directing your attention to the Duke Lacrosse case and Twana Brawley, communities were enraged then came to learn event did not happen as they were first reported by a media whose purpose is to sell advertising space.

    1. I don't think this case is comparable to that at all. The Duke Lacrosse players weren't being investigated for a crime they admitted to committing. Here Zimmerman has acknowledged that he shot and killed Trayvon. Regardless of what community is involved, it's entirely unacceptable for the system to have such little value for another human being's life that they can't even arrest a person who admits to killing another.

    2. Read the Florida law and then read the Florida decisions on self defense. It is not that easy to say Zimmerman should be arrested. At WCL, hopefully, you learned to floow the law and not emotion or public outrage.

    3. If you read the above blog post carefully, you will note that the comments made in it based on not only a discussion of the Florida stand your ground law which you are referring to but also common law self defense; not emotion.

      What I did learn at WCL is that self defense is precisely that, a defense. It's not a presumption or an assertion that can simply be made and accepted. People that invoke self defense must do so after they have been charged with a crime. Personally, I think that it is a good practice to restrict self defense to a defense only status. Imagine if we lived in a world, where individuals could assault and kill each other and simply say it was self defense and get off.

  7. What constitutes a license to kill whether by DNR law, euthanasia, or police power is the substance of murder law validity that must be properly devised to distinguish the legal from the illegal.

  8. Let's assume that Stand Your Grand is valid. I don't think it would even be applicable to this case - unless, of course, we are to accept Zimmerman's story that he was "attacked" by Martin, and that he only shot as he was standing in place.

    It appears much more likely that Zimmerman was the initial aggressor, or rather, the only aggressor, and that Martin - if he even so much as raised his hand at all - only did so out of self-defense.

  9. thanks for sharing.