[Let me preface this by saying that I am neither a police officer nor a lawyer. The following discussion about the law is a lay person’s view of it.]
“STAND YOUR GROUND” LAW
The “Stand Your Ground” law that has been referenced in the media lately is actually Florida Statutes Chapter 776 – “Justifiable Use of Force”. “Stand Your Ground” comes from the language within that statute that says a person “does not have a duty to retreat” under certain circumstances. Here is part of the relevant section to the Zimmerman case:
776.012 Use of force in defense of person.—A person is justified in using force, except deadly force, against another when and to the extent that the person reasonably believes that such conduct is necessary to defend himself or herself or another against the other’s imminent use of unlawful force. However, a person is justified in the use of deadly force and does not have a duty to retreat if:(1) He or she reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the imminent commission of a forcible felony; or(2) Under those circumstances permitted pursuant to s. 776.013.
Section 776.013 refers to home protection and is not relevant to this discussion. Let’s look at how this might apply to George Zimmerman.
In this post, I’m going to take Zimmerman at his word (and I haven’t seen any credible evidence to contradict him yet–that’s another blog post) as we know about it today. In another blog post, I’ll talk about other scenarios–that Zimmerman approached Martin and attacked him.
The gist of Zimmerman’s story is that he followed Trayvon Martin, lost sight of him, and was walking back to his car when Martin approached him. They exchanged words and Martin punched him, knocked him to the ground and they began to struggle. Martin banged Zimmerman’s head onto concrete at least once. At some point, Zimmerman pulled his weapon and fired a single shot into Martin’s chest, which ended the confrontation. Martin may or may not have seen Zimmerman’s gun and tried to grab it.
The relevant portion of the statute seems to be, “…a person is justified in the use of deadly force and does not have a duty to retreat if…He or she reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself.” If we take Zimmerman’s story as true, then it appears that the use of deadly force was justified. The broken nose and other bruises are not as relevant as the possibility of grave head injury/death. There are many documented instances of people hitting their head on the concrete–just once–and later dying from the trauma. To me, it’s head injury. Also, as I said above, there have also been reports from Zimmerman’s family that Martin tried to take Zimmerman’s gun from its holster or that he said “you’re going to die.” If true, those only lend more justification for Zimmerman’s actions.
One red herring that I’ve seen in various discussions is, “Well, Zimmerman wasn’t that badly hurt so he wasn’t justified in using his gun.” This also usually includes comments about whether or not Zimmerman’s nose was really broken, how many bruises he had, how bad the gash on his head was, etc. However, the language in the statute reads “to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm.” (my emphasis). Zimmerman didn’t have to be badly injured when he pulled the trigger he just had to believe that he was about to be.
ZIMMERMAN AS AGGRESSOR BECAUSE HE INITIALLY FOLLOWED MARTIN?
Some folks have said, “Wait a minute. Zimmerman was the aggressor because he followed Martin and scared him. It doesn’t matter if Martin came back and threw the first punch, Martin was just exercising his own ‘stand your ground’ rights.” There’s another section of the law that is relevant to this, and that’s the following:
776.041 Use of force by aggressor.—The justification described in the preceding sections of this chapter is not available to a person who:(1) Is attempting to commit, committing, or escaping after the commission of, a forcible felony; or
(2) Initially provokes the use of force against himself or herself, unless:(a) Such force is so great that the person reasonably believes that he or she is in imminent danger of death or great bodily harm and that he or she has exhausted every reasonable means to escape such danger other than the use of force which is likely to cause death or great bodily harm to the assailant; or(b) In good faith, the person withdraws from physical contact with the assailant and indicates clearly to the assailant that he or she desires to withdraw and terminate the use of force, but the assailant continues or resumes the use of force.
Section (1) does seem to say that if the aggressor is committing a “forcible felony”, then he cannot, under any circumstances, claim justifiable use of deadly force. Section 776.08 describes what constitutes forcible felonies and includes, amongst other things, aggravated assault, aggravated battery, and any other felony which involves the use or threat of physical force or violence against any individual. More on this in a later blog post.
Section (2)(a) is key. Note that this deals with provoking an attack in the absence of a forcible felony. If Zimmerman following Martin simply made Martin feel scared enough to throw the first punch, then Zimmerman’s actions fit with section (2). Following someone–in the absence of any verbal or physical threat–does not appear to qualify as a forcible felony. So there are a couple of cases under which Zimmerman would still be justified in using deadly force.
If Zimmerman reasonably believed that he was in imminent danger of death or great bodily harm AND he had exhausted other options to disengage without using deadly force, then under Section (2)(a), it appears that he would be justified in, in the end, shooting Martin. I have already addressed the assumption of harm, so did Zimmerman try other options before pulling the trigger?
According to 911 calls, the fight lasted maybe 30 seconds to a minute. So clearly, Zimmerman did not pull his gun as a first defense. He struggled with Martin and called for help. He couldn’t retreat because he was on the bottom in the fight. Finally, he pulled his gun and fired. This scenario appears to me to meet the requirements of 776.041 (2)(a).
Other folks claim, “Zimmerman stalked Martin.” Did he and is that a felony? Would that negate Zimmerman’s defense?
Here is how the Florida state statutes define stalking:
(2) Any person who willfully, maliciously, and repeatedly follows, harasses, or cyberstalks another person commits the offense of stalking, a misdemeanor of the first degree, …(3) Any person who willfully, maliciously, and repeatedly follows, harasses, or cyberstalks another person, and makes a credible threat with the intent to place that person in reasonable fear of death or bodily injury of the person, or the person’s child, sibling, spouse, parent, or dependent, commits the offense of aggravated stalking, a felony of the third degree, …
I would argue that Zimmerman following Martin does not meet even the requirements of Section (2) because all of Zimmerman’s following all occurred within a few minutes, rather than it being repeated instances, and there was no proof that it was malicious. However, even if the police determined it was repeated and malicious, this offense is only a misdemeanor and not a forcible felony that negates the justification of deadly force.
Zimmerman’s actions would have to have risen to the level of the those described in Section (3) for the offense to be a felony. That does not seem to be reasonable or provable under these circumstances.
In coming posts, I’ll look at Martin’s actions under this scenario, Zimmerman’s and Martin’s actions under other scenarios, and whether the “stand your ground” portion of this statue even applied in this case.