Monday, March 26, 2012

Stand By Your Ground

The death of Trayvon Martin at the hands of George Zimmerman has resulted in several things, though curiously not yet an arrest.  One result is a focus on the so-called "Stand your Ground" law adopted by Florida.  That law provides that a person may use deadly force and has no "duty to retreat" when that person reasonably believes it necessary to prevent the imminent death of or great bodily harm to that person or another, or to prevent the imminent commission of a forcible felony.

"Reasonably" is a word vague on its face, but one which lawyers and courts (and juries) have had to deal for quite some time.  An interesting question is whether with respect to this law the reasonableness standard is objective or subjective.  One hopes it is not subjective, as some of us may feel their death or great bodily harm is imminent in various circumstances where it is not; or, I should say, where a reasonable person in similar circumstances would not.  That's what the objective standard is about, normally.  Some of us may be abnormally fearful or downright paranoid, and I like to think that the Florida legislature didn't contemplate allowing them to "stand their ground" in all cases where such fear or paranoia is in play.

Then there is the word "imminent."  Just what is that supposed to mean?  Courts given no statutory definition may resort to dictionaries or legislative history (e.g., debates, legislative memoranda).  Legislative history is sometimes very absent when it comes to state laws.  And why is deadly force acceptable to prevent the imminent commission of a forcible felony?  Is it meant that the "forcible felony" in question is directed to the person using deadly force, or is it the case that any bystander to such a felony (or what is "reasonably believed" to be such a felony) may shoot the person "reasonably believed" to be committing such a felony?

At least when it comes to a bystander shooting a presumed felon, or someone reasonably believed to be in the course of causing the death of or great bodily harm to a third person, there must be some concern I would think regarding the fact that bystanders/witnesses make mistakes, sometimes very serious ones.  It is not unusual in law schools and "pre-law courses" for a professor to demonstrate the confused state of witnesses to an important event by staging a "surprise visit" (to use a Clockwork Orange phrase) or some such thing for the benefit of a class.  In my case, a student came barging into the classroom, engaged in a brief struggle with the professor and then jumped out of a window.  The professor then called various of us to the front of the room and asked us questions regarding what had taken place and the appearance of the "culprit."  The results were sobering indeed.  To this day, I'm always leery of eyewitness testimony.  Sometimes, though, that's all the evidence one has.

I suspect that this is one of those laws which will require a good deal of interpretation, which will mean that several cases will have to go through the court system, including appeals, until there is a body of law defining its application in some necessarily less than definitive sense.  That is not a good thing, as it would mean that a lot of people will have to be shot, stabbed, or otherwise subject to deadly force to get the higher courts to interpret the law.  Possibly, the legislature may step in and clarify the law as well.  I've heard that certain of the sponsors to the legislation have said that the law should not apply in this case, as it seems that Zimmerman took it upon himself to chase Martin, rather than just "standing his ground."  One hopes that the courts will make a similar interpretation, but there is no requirement that they do so.

Such laws raise serious concerns in our gun-happy nation.  It is not surprising that given the language of the law, law enforcement and prosecutors may feel some hesitancy in arresting and prosecuting suspects.  The result then may well be what is taking place now, the protests and parades and omnipresent media coverage which also raise issues (such as where on earth will one find an impartial jury?).  The law generally is a vastly complicated beast, difficult to handle.  This particular law has its share of complications, all of them unfortunately becoming pertinent after someone has been subjected to "deadly force."

No comments:

Post a Comment