George Zimmerman and Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” Law

Political Myth:  The “Stand Your Ground” law in Florida will make it substantially more difficult to convict George Zimmerman for killing Trayvon Martin.

Reality:  The “Stand Your Ground” law has very little to do with the strength George Zimmerman’s defense.

Explanation

In every state in the United States, a person accused of homicide (or a number of other lesser crimes) is allowed to argue in court that he was acting in “self defense,” which is a shorthand way of saying “Yes, I did it, but it was necessary for me to do it in order to protect myself, or another person, from death or serious bodily harm.”  If the defendant is successful in making that argument, the defendant is not guilty.  That much all states have in common.

The thing about Florida’s “Stand Your Ground Law” (otherwise known as Fla. Stat. § 776.012) that makes the self defense privilege in Florida slightly broader than that of other states is the absence of a “duty to retreat.”  In most states, a person who finds himself in a situation where, in order to to save his own life, he has to either A.  Use deadly force against his attacker, or B.  Run away, that person is required by law to run away.  The notable exception to that rule is that you never have to run away from your own home.  In your own home, the law allows you to “stand your ground” and defend yourself.

In Florida, you never have to run away.  If you are charged with homicide in Florida, and you are able to convince the court that you had to use deadly force in order to save your own life, the prosecutor cannot then thwart your defense by saying “you didn’t really have to use deadly force — you could have run away.”

So, what does this have to do with People v. Zimmerman?  Absolutely nothing.  Zimmerman’s claim is that Martin knocked him down, climbed on top of him, and forcibly slammed his head into a concrete sidewalk.  If Zimmerman’s story is true, then he didn’t have an opportunity to run away, so the “Stand Your Ground” law doesn’t really matter.

On the other hand, there is one peculiarity in Florida criminal law that will help Zimmerman immensely.  If the incident had taken place in  Ohio, the only thing the state would have had to prove “beyond a reasonable doubt” would be that Zimmerman shot Martin (which Zimmerman has admitted).  It would then be up to  Zimmerman to prove, by a preponderance of the evidence (i.e. more likely than not) that he was acting in self defense.  In Florida, the rule is that once the defendant raises a self-defense claim, the state must prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the defendant didn’t act in self defense.  But even that distinction doesn’t make Florida unique.  In homicide cases that involve a self defense claim, the vast majority of states allocate the burdens of proof the way Florida does, rather than the way Ohio does.

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