Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” Law: Not Guilty? (July 15, 2013)

Unless you’ve been hiding in a cave the last 48 hours (and given an increasingly depressing news cycle, who could blame you?), you’ve heard the news. Florida’s George Zimmerman was acquitted of the charge of second degree murder in the February 26, 2012 shooting death of 17 year-old high school student Trayvon Martin. A six-person, all-female jury found the prosecution unable to create reasonable doubt around the self-defense argument, and this was compelling enough to return a “not guilty” verdict.

If you spent any amount of time on Twitter over the last two days (full disclosure: I don’t tweet and never will), you might be tempted to confuse “not guilty” with “innocent,” but such is certainly not the case. No one, not even George Zimmerman, claims that Trayvon’s young life was brought to a premature end by another’s gun. No one disputes that the two men struggled during an altercation precipitated by the armed, hypervigilant chase of Zimmerman, even as 911 dispatchers cautioned him to relinquish pursuit. Not a soul contends that Martin was himself armed with more than a package of Skittles and a beverage on that fateful night.

A nation weary of gun violence, divergent police response in relation to ethnicity, and fearful of the implications of the verdict on the safety of young black men has come largely together to bemoan a miscarriage of justice. The problem, however, is that as current Florida law stands, the verdict was right on the money. And if we wish not to open a Pandora’s Box of similar tragedies, a growing gang of armed vigilantes deciding for themselves that any sort of perceived threat is license to open fire, we must focus our attention on repealing the law that begat this catastrophe.

In the interest of unedited disclosure, I am reprinting the terms of the Florida statute (“Stand Your Ground”) in full:

Home protection; use of deadly force; presumption of fear of death or great bodily harm.—
(1) A person is presumed to have held a reasonable fear of imminent peril of death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another when using defensive force that is intended or likely to cause death or great bodily harm to another if:
(a) The person against whom the defensive force was used was in the process of unlawfully and forcefully entering, or had unlawfully and forcibly entered, a dwelling, residence, or occupied vehicle, or if that person had removed or was attempting to remove another against that person’s will from the dwelling, residence, or occupied vehicle; and
(b) The person who uses defensive force knew or had reason to believe that an unlawful and forcible entry or unlawful and forcible act was occurring or had occurred.
(2) The presumption set forth in subsection (1) does not apply if:
(a) The person against whom the defensive force is used has the right to be in or is a lawful resident of the dwelling, residence, or vehicle, such as an owner, lessee, or titleholder, and there is not an injunction for protection from domestic violence or a written pretrial supervision order of no contact against that person; or
(b) The person or persons sought to be removed is a child or grandchild, or is otherwise in the lawful custody or under the lawful guardianship of, the person against whom the defensive force is used; or
(c) The person who uses defensive force is engaged in an unlawful activity or is using the dwelling, residence, or occupied vehicle to further an unlawful activity; or
(d) The person against whom the defensive force is used is a law enforcement officer, as defined in s. 943.10(14), who enters or attempts to enter a dwelling, residence, or vehicle in the performance of his or her official duties and the officer identified himself or herself in accordance with any applicable law or the person using force knew or reasonably should have known that the person entering or attempting to enter was a law enforcement officer.
(3) 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 reasonably 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.
(4) A person who unlawfully and by force enters or attempts to enter a person’s dwelling, residence, or occupied vehicle is presumed to be doing so with the intent to commit an unlawful act involving force or violence.
(5) As used in this section, the term:
(a) “Dwelling” means a building or conveyance of any kind, including any attached porch, whether the building or conveyance is temporary or permanent, mobile or immobile, which has a roof over it, including a tent, and is designed to be occupied by people lodging therein at night.
(b) “Residence” means a dwelling in which a person resides either temporarily or permanently or is visiting as an invited guest.
(c) “Vehicle” means a conveyance of any kind, whether or not motorized, which is designed to transport people or property.

If we cut through the legislative and legal jargon, what Florida’s law means in absolute practice is that an armed individual need only suspect possible illegal activity in relation to another’s personal property before drawing their weapon. And upon engaging the suspected perpetrator, if the investigating party feels at any time that their person or life is in jeopardy, they may proceed to open fire without the risk of prosecution.

In other words, any lay person with a gun in the Sunshine State is deputized and fully invested with the authority to check into malfeasance, and put an end to it with no training other than the guide of gut and emotions. The surprise then, is not that Zimmerman was found “not guilty” of second degree murder, but that he was even charged in the first place.

And indeed, local authorities initially declined to press charges before public furor erupted, rendering the possibility of doing nothing so much PR hari kari.

And exactly who do we have to thank for the increasing prevalence of “Stand Your Ground” type laws, which now exist in some form in 24 U.S. States? The gun lobby of course, more specifically the NRA, which occupies its usual place at the intersection of Second Amendment overreach and the compromise of public safety. Permit me to quote from a March 31, 2012 ABC News story: “Do a quick search for ‘Stand Your Ground’ on the National Rifle Association’s website and the first video result features the story of a Florida man exonerated of murder charges in January 2012 under the State’s ‘Stand Your Ground’ law.”

Writer Michael Ono goes on to observe: “The pro-gun group championed the passage of the original law in Florida back in 2004 and lobbied to pass similar legislation in other states, according to the Center for Public Integrity. In light of the recent controversy, the NRA has stalled its lobbying efforts in to pass the law in Alaska, according to Bloomberg News.”

The NRA has long been aware of the emotion of fear as a great motivator, and in most cases, the motivation is increased gun sales. When will we as a nation get wise to the truth? Though the NRA membership includes thousands of sane, law-abiding citizens who are safely in observance of their Constitutional rights, the Association’s bureaucratic and lobbying arms are not reflective of these ideals. Were I a gun owner myself, I might consider it high time to withhold my annual dues until Wayne LaPierre and his ilk get out of the business of state sanctioned death as a method of increasing sales.

George Zimmerman: “not guilty,” according to strict tenets of the law maybe, but by no means innocent. The NRA and “Stand Your Ground” laws: Zimmerman’s accomplices with Trayvon Martin’s blood all over their hands.
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Federal Judge Finally Orders Changes to NYC’s Racially Biased Stop-and-Frisk Policy (August 13, 2013)

stop-frisk

It’s been a tough summer to be a minority entangled in the dispiriting web of the criminal justice system. Florida’s NRA advocated, vigilante-promoting Stand Your Ground law degenerated into inevitable ugliness with the 2012 shooting death of 17 year-old, unarmed teen Trayvon Martin. In the trial that followed, a jury of women upheld shooter George Zimmerman’s contention that he was not a racist, overreaching cop wannabe, just a regular neighborhood watchman protecting his property.  Unfortunately, despite the uproar, pain and public demonstrations which followed the verdict, the jury’s decision was well-founded according to strict application of the horrendous law. Zimmerman need only have felt the appearance of imminent danger to warrant a discharge of his weapon.

The badly needed public discourse that accompanied the case forced American citizens of all stripes to ask themselves and their neighbors the tough questions: Just how far has race equality actually advanced in the post-Civil Rights era? Is our justice system really as blind as our stated ideals desire? Where is the middle ground located between protection of public safety and respect for individual freedom and liberty?

In the local and national conversations which ensued, New York City’s controversial Stop-and-Frisk policy figured prominently. The public data warehouse, Wikipedia, defines the program as “a practice of the New York City Police Department by which a police officer who reasonably suspects a person has committed, is committing, or is about to commit a felony or a penal law misdemeanor, stops and questions that person, and, if the officer reasonably suspects he or she is in danger of physical injury, frisks the person stopped for weapons.”

The rightfully suspicious regarded this expansion of street level police authority as rife with racial profiling possibilities. New York City’s outgoing Mayor Michael Bloomberg has found his seat of defense perpetually hot as he weathered public and private demonstrations against the law. Arguing that the policy has reduced crime and saved lives, the Mayor has repeatedly refused calls to abolish or at least amend the statute. The Supreme Court of the United States previously ruled that such practices were constitutional under the vaguely worded, “certain conditions.”

Opponents of the law have long argued that Stop-and-Frisk searches have been unevenly directed at young minority men, particularly African Americans. And this week, that constituency found a powerful ally in the form of federal judge Shira A. Scheindlin. In a decision rendered Monday morning, the judge had strong words of rebuke for Bloomberg and the NYPD. According to a story published in the New York Times, the judge “found that the city ‘adopted a policy of indirect racial profiling by targeting racially defined groups for stops based on local crime suspect data.’ She rejected the city’s arguments that more stops happened in minority neighborhoods solely because those happened to have high-crime rates.” Writer Joseph Goldstein further reports, “To fix the constitutional violations, the judge designated an outside lawyer, Peter L. Zimroth, to monitor the Police Department’s compliance with the Constitution.”

Mr. Zimroth has yeoman’s work ahead in the attempt to fix a law that has displayed “a widespread disregard for the [protections of the] Fourth Amendment,” but the rewards will be well worth the effort. Let this week’s ruling serve as a warning to other municipal locations across the nation who may have been inspired by the Big Apple’s example. Public safety concerns do not equate to free rein to harass “the other.”