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Self-Defense and the Trayvon Martin Case

There is no doubt about it, the Trayvon Martin case is a tragedy. For those unfamiliar with the case there is discussion from CBS and the Christian Science Monitor. The City of Sanford has recently released the relevant 911 calls and several police reports. While the facts are still coming to light, there are questions surrounding the application, and possible misunderstanding, of the “stand your ground” doctrine of self-defense.

In a general sense, this doctrine allows a person to claim self-defense even though they did not retreat from the confrontation. For example, if I am walking down the street, minding my own business, and I am attacked by a man with a knife I am allowed to return the attack with my own knife. I can claim self-defense, even though I could have run away from my attacker.

That’s all that stand your ground laws really mean. And here is one potential issue with the Martin case – from the 911 calls it may be possible that Zimmerman was pursuing Martin. Again, the facts are still not clear here, but if this is true then Zimmerman did not react to this incident, he created it by pursuing Martin. However, Zimmerman's account according to the Orlando Sentinel paints Martin as the attacker.

Another wrinkle in the Florida law surrounding self-defense is a clause creating immunity from criminal prosecution. This law prevents law enforcement from arresting a person claiming self-defense unless officers have probable cause that the person was not, in fact, acting in self-defense. This is unique to claims of self-defense and does not apply to other defenses. If officers have probable cause that I am guilty of burglary and I claim to have an alibi, officers do not have to have probable cause that my alibi is false before making the arrest. The same is true for other defenses similar to self-defense, such as duress, necessity, and lack of mental capacity that are often called “affirmative defenses”. Concerns about officer liability may help explain some of the law enforcement behavior in this case.

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Todd Hiestand is an Associate Professor of Criminal Justice. All posts by Professor Hiestand should not be considered as advertisements for the solicitation of legal services nor should you consider any post or comment to be legal advice that you should rely upon in a specific legal matter.

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Guest Friday, 18 April 2014

About This Blog

OhBehave is the outreach blog of the MNU Behavioral Sciences Department. In matters related to Psychology, Sociology, and Criminal Justice you will find information and updates geared to keep students and professionals abreast of the latest research, professional developments, and important trends in each field. As we seek a life of purpose, the material presented in this blog is meant to enhance and deepen our understanding of people and our world so that we may intentionally reflect the grace and peace of our creator.