George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin. I know just exactly that much. All of the other “facts” in the case change from day to day, and sometimes from hour to hour.
Many people have expressed outrage over the fact that Zimmerman was not even arrested, much less charged with a crime. However, once Zimmerman claimed that he was acting in self defense, the police could not arrest him under Florida law, unless they had probable cause to believe that his claim was false.
This was due to a Florida statute known as the Stand Your Ground law.
This law is extremely broad, and it makes it very hard for police to hold a suspect who claims self defense.
Traditionally, the burden was on the defendant to prove self-defense.
First, he had to show that he was not at fault for creating the situation.
Second, he had to show that he reasonably believed that he faced an immediate danger of death or serious bodily injury.
And third, he had to show that he reasonably believed that using force was his only means of preventing his injury or death.
In practical terms, this last requirement meant that a person had a duty to retreat from his attacker, if possible, to avoid the threat without using force. In some situations, though, this led to a disagreeable outcome.
Under the traditional version of the self defense law, a robber could literally force a homeowner to retreat out of his own home to avoid a fight, while the robber stayed to pack up his loot.
In Ohio, the Legislature addressed this issue by passing a law known as the Castle Doctrine. Under this statute, a person does not have to retreat from his own home, and he is presumed to be acting a self defense if he uses force against an intruder.
In some respects, Florida takes the same position on self defense, but the Stand Your Ground statute goes much further.
In Florida, a person may use force, even deadly force, anywhere and at any time, if he reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent an immediate threat of death or great bodily harm.
In these situations, a person may use deadly force, even though he could have avoided the situation by simply walking away. And unlike Ohio’s Castle Doctrine, the Florida statute is not restricted to cases where a person is defending her own home; it applies at work, in a bar or on a public street.
So, in Florida, if you are threatened by a violent drunk in a bar, you can defuse the situation by simply walking out of the bar, or you can shoot the person dead in his tracks. Either option is perfectly legal.
And the burden is on the police to prove that your claim of self defense is not true, even before you are arrested.
However, even in Florida, self defense does not apply if you are the aggressor. If you are the person who started the fight, you cannot claim that you are defending yourself when the other person fights back.
This raises several unanswered questions with respect to the Trayvon Martin case, some of which are:
- Was Zimmerman the aggressor in his original confrontation with Martin, if he did not actually use force?
- Did Zimmerman end the original confrontation by walking away, and did Martin start a new confrontation by following him?
- Did Martin actually attack Zimmerman, placing him in fear of great bodily harm?
The police could not arrest Zimmerman, because they had no answers to these questions. We may legitimately criticize the police, of course, if they did not do their job properly in looking for those answers. But more importantly, those questions need to be answered now.
Have a question or a suggestion for a topic? Contact Dennis at dspirgen@SpirgenLawFirm.com.
Patch posts are general discussions and should not be used as advice on any specific legal matter. If you need legal advice on a particular situation, please consult an attorney.