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What is Florida's 'Stand Your Ground' law?

  • Trayvon Martin was shot and killed in Sanford, Florida, February 26
  • Martin's family is calling for the shooter's arrest
  • A Florida law may protect the shooter from criminal and civil liability

Editor's note: Beth Karas is a correspondent for In Session on truTV.

Trayvon Martin, 17, went to the store for some candy and a soft drink and was shot while returning to his father's fiancée’s house in Sanford, Florida, on February 26.

Watch the video to see In Session's Ryan Smith discuss the law with Beth Karas and Sunny Hostin.

The shooter, George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch captain, said he shot Martin in self defense. Zimmerman hasn’t been arrested, and the killing has generated a lot of discussion about a Florida statute called the “Stand Your Ground” law.

The Law

The “Stand Your Ground” doctrine in can be found in Florida Statute § 776.013(3) (2012).  Take a look at some key parts of the legislation:

§ 776.013.  Home protection; use of deadly force; presumption of fear of death or great bodily harm 

(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.

Most states have enacted the “castle doctrine,” which says that you have a right to use deadly force to protect your home if you reasonably believe that your life is in jeopardy, but the Florida law goes one step further and permits individuals to stand their ground anywhere they have a right to be without requiring them to retreat first.

In Florida, you can use deadly force anywhere as long as you:

--Are not engaged in an unlawful activity

--Are being attacked in a place you have a right to be

--Reasonably believe that your life and safety is in danger as a result of an overt act or perceived threat committed by someone else toward you.

Immunity from criminal prosecution and civil action for justifiable use of force can be found in Florida Statute § 776.032(1) (2012).

(1) A person who uses force as permitted in … s. 776.013…is justified in using such force and is immune from criminal prosecution and civil action for the use of such force... As used in this subsection, the term "criminal prosecution" includes arresting, detaining in custody, and charging or prosecuting the defendant.

That means you are immune from prosecution or civil liability because you are allowed to use the force. When “Stand Your Ground” is successfully asserted following a killing, the homicide is considered “justified,” which means there won’t be any criminal charges filed and you cannot held liable in a civil case either.

Possible criminal charges

Probable cause is the degree of proof required to arrest someone. Probable cause is difficult to define in certain terms, but generally probable cause exists where the facts and circumstances would warrant a person of reasonable caution to believe that an offense was or is being committed. In other words, there must be more evidence than not that a crime was or is being committed.

In the Zimmerman case, no law enforcement officer was witness to the incident. Therefore, law enforcement must conduct a thorough investigation of the incident and the use of force. After reviewing all the evidence, the police can arrest Zimmerman only if they are satisfied there is probable cause.  

However, since a grand jury will begin hearing evidence on April 10, it is likely that the Sanford Police Department will assist the grand jury’s investigation and not pursue an arrest (independent of the grand jury). Should the grand jury vote to indict Zimmerman, the indictment would serve as the basis for the arrest; an indictment is equivalent to an arrest warrant at that point.

Because of the high profile nature of this case, the grand jury investigation is likely to be the focus. Grand jurors are considered the “conscience of the community” and this political hot-potato is better left in the hands of the body of citizens comprising this particular grand jury.

What happens if Zimmerman is charged with a crime?

If charges are brought, the defense is entitled to a pre-trial evidentiary hearing on the issue. The judge decides whether the individual is entitled to immunity. The burden at that hearing is on the defense to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the person was entitled to use the force. If the judge finds the defendant is immune because the force was justifiable, the court can dismiss the charges. If the judge finds the defendant is NOT immune and the force was not justifiable, then the charges can move forward.

Self-defense can also be asserted at trial if there is one. At trial, the burden is on the State to disprove self-defense beyond a reasonable doubt and the jury decides the issue of self-defense.

There are several levels at which the defense may succeed: A “Stand Your Ground” claim before charges are filed, at a pre-trial hearing, or through a self-defense claim at trial.

The Martin family can sue Zimmerman in civil court if law enforcement refuses to file charges, but the motion to dismiss based on “Stand Your Ground” immunity could be raised in the civil suit prior to trial. If the civil judge addresses the motion to dismiss based on immunity, then either side could appeal.

If criminal charges are filed and there is criminal trial, the family can sue in civil court regardless of whether Zimmerman wins or loses on the jury question of self-defense. 

If the family sues Zimmerman and the court finds Zimmerman is immune under the “Stand Your Ground” statute, then the family would be on the hook for Zimmerman’s expenses, such as attorney’s fees, court costs, loss of income and other money spent defending the civil suit.


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