On February 26, 2012, an African-American teen named Trayvon Martin was found shot to death in a small community north of Orlando. Who was his killer? George Zimmerman, a 28-year-old leader of the Sanford, FL community watch program; a position he had essentially bestowed upon himself.
Zimmerman remains a free man, protected by a Florida law known by many as a ‘Stand Your Ground’ law. Florida was the first of several states to pass a “Stand Your Ground” law which legally allowed someone to take proactive measures and use deadly force as a means of self-protection outside of their own home (which was the previous, traditional limit for such use of force). Prior to the passage of the 2005 law, an individual faced with a situation which may call for self-defense was legally obligated to first and foremost attempt to flee. Because Zimmerman is able to claim that he suspected that Martin was committing a crime and that he “reasonably” believed that he was in personal danger, (it seems) he has been granted a certain level of immunity from being punished for his actions. This has created a good deal of controversy around the country.
Since the incident, bill sponsor, Former State Senator Durrell Peadon (R) and other members of the Florida legislature have started speaking out against this interpretation of their law. They claim the Florida legislature did not intend this kind of result in passing this bill, but simply intended to provide a measure of self-protection for honest Americans. In fact, representatives have said that if the facts show that the alleged actions of Zimmerman on February 26 are true, then he will find no protection in their law. But that is not really their call anymore, is it? Now the matter is in the hands of the Florida justice system.
A person who is not engaged in an unlawful activity and who is attacked in any other place where he or she has a right to be has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he or she reasonable believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.
A few things jump out about the text of this law and the facts of this situation. First, is the question of whether Zimmerman was even attacked. From what is publicly known about Zimmerman’s conversations with the police, they seem to indicate that, in fact, Zimmerman may have been the one who initiated contact with the teen. The second issue is the use of the ever problematic reasonable belief standard in a statute which allows one individual to end the life of another and potentially go unpunished for this action. Another provision of Florida law, §776.012, gives further possible protection to Zimmerman and reads:
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 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 reasonable 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.
This provision may aid Zimmerman in attempting to defend his actions as it does not place a requirement on the individual to have been first attacked. However, even with 776.012, there is still a problem with the reasonable belief standard. A “forcible felony” as stated in both 776.012 and 776.013 is defined under Florida statute §776.08 and includes: “murder; manslaughter; sexual battery; carjacking; home-invasion robbery; robbery; burglary; arson; kidnapping; aggravated assault; aggravated battery; aggravated stalking; aircraft piracy; unlawful throwing, placing, or discharging of a destructive device or bomb; and any other felony which involves the use or threat of physical force or violence against any individual.”
A classmate put these statutes in a way that really rang out for me: “Authorized Vigilante Justice.” Since hearing that, I have seen others voice a very similar opinion. I grew up in South Central Texas, and I also own multiple firearms. I am a firm believer in an individual’s right to own and bear arms. Similarly, the right to defend yourself and your home are also codified in Florida statute §776.013. However, that right should not eclipse the rights of another individual’s rights.
Under the letter of the law there is a decent chance that a jury could find that Zimmerman reasonably believed that Martin was robbing a home, or any other of the many crimes applicable under §776.08. That is the problem. The state of Florida has allowed the beliefs of an individual with a gun to become a form of justice, and that simply should not be permissible.
There is no claim that Trayvon Martin actually committed a felonious crime or was in the process of committing one before his encounter with George Zimmerman that fateful night. But even if Martin had done something wrong, he is owed several things by our justice system, including the right to have a jury determine whether he is actually guilty of committing any crime. Instead, being a lone outsider in a community late at night seems to have given Zimmerman a right to take on the roles of everyone in our judicial system, from police officer to judge to executioner. The due process rights (not to mention the life) Zimmerman stole from Martin that night show, in and of itself, why the Florida law, as written, is simply unacceptable.
This is not to say that the idea of a “Stand Your Ground” law cannot work. It can. However, no law which gives an individual a right to end the life of another should be based on a standard that they reasonably believed that one thing or another was going to happen. An officer cannot arrest me without some measure of probable cause and a judge cannot sentence me to death until a prosecutor has proved to a jury that I have committed a crime punishable by death beyond a reasonable doubt. However, because Zimmerman was just an average citizen with a gun, he is allowed an almost indefinable standard by which to decide whether Martin had the right to continue living.
For a law of this type to be effective, it will take a clearer statute and standard by which to determine whether a crime is happening and a narrower definition of what allows an individual to initiate the use of deadly force against another. Several of the listed forcible felonies are obviously understandable (such as arson, sexual battery, aircraft piracy, etc.); however, others do not seem to warrant the punishment of potential death by citizen. For example, under Florida law, one is allowed to kill another if one finds it reasonably necessary to prevent them from committing an imminent car-jacking. To save the possession of a third-party from being stolen, it would be ok to kill someone. This is unreasonable.
The Florida courts should have the opportunity to look at Zimmerman’s case, if only for the fact they could have the opportunity to strike the law down and force the legislature to re-assess the how the law is written. Clearer definitions need to be implemented so that an individual must have more than just a subjective belief that a crime is being committed or that someone is threatening them. It may not be as extreme as needing to see a weapon, but a level of accountability must be in place for those who will take it upon themselves to put the words of 776.012 and 776.013 into effect.
We may never have a clear picture of what happened that night between Martin and Zimmerman Sanford, Florida. Instead, we will get a picture that involves a nation displaying a level of rage and debate over the actions taken that night by Zimmerman. Some have called this a race issue, and they may be right. There is not enough known about Zimmerman to know if he would be driven by racial prejudice to act in this way. Others will say this is a gun rights issue, and they may be right, too. There are many issues at play here. But in the end, I see only one solution being the correct one under the United States Constitution, and that is to arrest and try George Zimmerman for murder allowing for him to officially raise his self-defense claim (up to this point it has been the decision of the police and District Attorney’s to not arrest Zimmerman as they have determined he acted within the bounds of Florida statutes §776.013 and §776.012 in a court of law. Then it should be the responsibility of the courts to shoot down the defense and rule this law to be unconstitutional, so that Zimmerman is punished for his actions and the state of Florida’s legislature will be forced to fix this law so that another person will not feel justified by over-zealously taking the life of one of their fellow men.
Disclaimer: The copyright in each article and post is owned by its respective author. Opinions expressed are those of the respective contributor and not presented as the views of the Alabama Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Law Review, its editors, the University of Alabama School of Law or the University of Alabama Board of Trustees or any other entity not specifically mentioned. All statements on this site belong to its writer. In addition, the views, opinions, and conclusions expressed in this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of The University of Alabama or its officers and trustees. The content of this page has not been reviewed or approved by the University of Alabama, and the author is solely responsible for its content.