By Justin Allsop, Rose Law Group Law Clerk
If anything, the incidents surrounding Trayvon Martin’s death and the trial of George Zimmerman have made American citizens open their eyes to the fact sometimes our laws aren’t always so clear-cut. Many states have their own versions of the Florida “Stand Your Ground Law,” and Arizona is among them. But what exactly is the “Stand Your Ground” law and how does it differ from regular self-defense?
In Arizona, there are certain situations that permit people to legally defend themselves with deadly force – self-defense, defense of home and property (known often as the “Castle Doctrine”). Then there is Stand Your Ground. Each has its own slight twists, but the latter two are basically extensions of the first.
First and foremost, though, one must understand that in any of the potential situations in which the law justifies deadly force or physical force, there is a “reasonable person” standard. This means a reasonable person would have believed it necessary to use such physical or deadly force in the same situation. That means the threat to a person had better be real.
Verbal altercations will not suffice. Someone bumping you hard at the baseball stadium is also highly unlikely to be a justification for deadly force based on the reasonable person standard. The point is the jury, a supposed group of our/your contemporaries, as the reasonable persons, would also find that in the situation for which the justification of deadly force is asked, was reasonable.
Self-defense is perhaps the one that is most obvious to the common person. The law of self-defense in its simplest terms can be summed up as permitting the claim of self-defense when using lethal force against an assailant. For most people, this probably makes sense; we should all be permitted to defend ourselves against an attacker whose threats and actions put our own lives in imminent danger. If the repercussions of our defense is the death of the attacker, then so be it. Certainly no one wants to be in that situation, but no one should be concerned about murder charges either when they are defending themselves. Self-defense can also be extended to defense of third persons in some situations.
Defense of property and premises is also a situation where there can be a justification for physical or deadly force under the law. The policy there is one should be able to defend his/her home, business or other property against an assailant. Here again, though the reasonable person standard is critical and you actually need to be defending your property/premises. You can’t use this claim if you are in the parking lot of Wal-Mart.
With Stand Your Ground, however, you can be justified for using deadly force in the parking lot of Wal-Mart, so long as you have a legal right to be there and you aren’t doing anything illegal. This is where the law finds so much controversy. This is where George Zimmerman found himself in trouble.
With so much coverage of the trial, there is no need to lay out the facts or discuss the situation that resulted in the untimely death of a young man. But they have brought a lot of attention to the law that made it okay and ultimately helped Zimmerman get his acquittal.
For many, Stand Your Ground is more or less just an extension of self-defense, and in the Zimmerman case, that might have held true. In fact, many lawmakers and lawyers believe this was an unfortunate incident that should not serve as the backdrop for rewriting the law. But the law itself is actually pretty simple; it simply states that if someone is reasonably believed to be threatening or actually attacking with deadly force — so long as you aren’t doing something illegal yourself or in a place you shouldn’t be — you have the right to defend yourself with deadly force regardless of where you are. That sounds a lot like self-defense to this author.
In fact, it sounds so much like self-defense it might even be that “Stand Your Ground” is actually an unnecessary law altogether since the codified version of self-defense makes no mention of place as an element of the justification.
Why should self-defense have any language about place? Is it important? Should it matter if I am being attacked at my home or at the lake? At home is it okay to defend myself, but at the lake I should be expected to run away? What if I can’t outrun my assailant? In either scenario I should have the right to defend myself. In either scenario, assuming the elements for justification have been met, place seems superfluous.
What matters is I was reasonable in my belief I needed to use physical or deadly force because I was being attacked with the same, or someone was trying to attack me with the same. At best, “Stand Your Ground” is simply redundant. When the law was passed in Arizona, it was passed unanimously and was presented only with a short, 20-second presentation before being voted on. As a result we will never really understand the policy rationale or circumstances that were behind it.
If the state is serious about revisiting the law, per Senator McCain’s suggestion, then at the very least, let’s get some legislative history behind it so we can understand how it truly differs from self-defense and how it will apply in situations where self-defense