The killing of Trayvon Martin in Florida has rightly been attracting a lot of attention. While much of the discussion has been about the alleged racism of his assailant, George Zimmerman, and that of the Florida police in not arresting and charging the man, as well as the broader social and cultural significance of the case, it is worth reflecting on the place of the criminal law in this. Underlying the incident is Florida's unusually broad law on self defence, based on the so-called 'stand your ground' principle. To what extent might this law, with its broad definition of the circumstances in which it is permissible to attack an assailant, have contributed to the killing?
The law on self defence is contained in s.776.012 and 013 of the Florida Statutes. The relevant section reads:
A person is justified in the use of deadly force and does not have a duty to retreat if:S.776.013 then goes on set out that a person is presumed to have a reasonable fear of imminent peril (and is thus permitted to use lethal force) where this was used against an unlawful entrant of a building or vehicle, where the person believed that an unlawful entry was occuring or about to occur. It goes on to state that a person attacked in a place where they have a right to be has no duty to retreat and can meet force with force, and that the person attempting to unlawfully enter another person's building is presumed to be doing so with intent to use force or violence.
(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
|Go ahead, make my day...|
All of which brings us back to the original question of whether a law framed in these terms might have contributed to the killing. The answer, at least to my mind, is that even a restrictive reading of the statute allows enormous leeway to the initial victim - to the extent that the fact of their victimhood is presumed rather than established in fact. This is not just a question of the right to stand one's ground, as that surely could be framed in such a way that it was not surrounded by such broad presumptions. More than this, however, there is evidence from other cases that not only is Florida's law framed in broad terms but that it is also interpreted in a very broad way by the judiciary, allowing the pursuit and stabbing of intruders. Taken altogether these have produced a lethal combination which seems permit far more than self defence.