The 2012 death of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old boy shot and killed by George Zimmerman in Florida, brought much attention to Florida's stand-your-ground laws. Stand your ground laws are a type of self-defense law that allows the use of deadly force when a person has the reasonable belief that they are in imminent danger.
The tragic situation in Florida, and others like it around the country, have caused many people to question the wisdom of these criminal laws. Still, some defend these laws as necessary for defending against would-be perpetrators.
But what exactly are stand-your-ground laws? How do they work as a legal defense, and what purpose do they serve? This article will answer those questions and more.
Duty to Retreat
Discussing stand-your-ground laws without first explaining the common law concept of the duty to retreat is impossible. In its most extreme form, the duty to retreat states that a person under imminent threat of great bodily harm must retreat from the aggressor as much as possible before responding with deadly force in self-defense. About 11 U.S. states, including New York, Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, and Connecticut, impose the duty to retreat.
Stand-Your-Ground Laws at a Glance
Stand-your-ground laws are essentially a revocation of the duty to retreat. Stand your ground laws generally state that, under certain circumstances, people can use force to defend themselves without first attempting to retreat from the danger. The purpose behind these laws is to remove any confusion about when people can defend themselves and to eliminate prosecutions of people who legitimately used self-defense even though they had not attempted to retreat from the threat.
In many states, such as Florida, a claim of self-defense under a stand-your-ground law offers immunity from criminal prosecution rather than an affirmative defense. This means that, rather than presenting a self-defense argument at an assault trial, an individual could claim self-defense under the state's stand-your-ground law and avoid trial altogether.
State legislatures differ on whether the stand-your-ground law applies to lethal force instances. Some states retain the duty to retreat when lethal force is involved, and others remove the duty to retreat under all circumstances.
The following states are stand-your-ground states that have state laws that provide that there is no duty to retreat:
- New Hampshire
- North Carolina
- North Dakota
- South Carolina
- South Dakota
- West Virginia
These states have case laws or precedents that established that there is no duty to retreat:
- New Mexico
Stand Your Ground vs. Castle Doctrine
The castle doctrine is similar to stand your ground but is typically limited to real property, including one's home or business. The idea is that people have a right to be safe and secure within their own homes (or "castles") and thus should not have to retreat from their homes to be safe. This means homeowners in states that recognize the castle doctrine can use lethal force against trespassers to prevent imminent death or serious bodily harm.
Controversy Over Stand Your Ground
Stand-your-ground laws are often criticized as encouraging gun violence and violent crimes. Some civil rights activists claim that the laws lead to a "shoot first, ask questions later" attitude that results in higher homicide rates at the hands of law enforcement. Proponents of stand-your-ground laws, including the National Rifle Association (NRA), counter that they allow people to protect themselves without worrying about whether they have retreated sufficiently before using force.
Get Legal Help Understanding Stand-Your-Ground Laws
The issues surrounding stand-your-ground self-defense claims are complex and delicate. Whether you're just curious about your state's self-defense laws or being investigated for shooting someone in what you believe was self-defense, your best move is to talk to a criminal defense attorney near you.