BY TRAVIS TOWNSEND, ESQ.
In the wake of the death of 17-year old Trayvon Martin, many important issues relating to law enforcement, self-defense, race and profiling have arisen in public discourse. The questions of whether George Zimmerman’s fatal shooting of Trayvon was justified, and whether the Sanford, Florida police department was derelict in its law enforcement duties for failing to arrest and initiate the prosecutorial process against him are foremost among them.
It would be convenient if resolving these questions were a simple matter of interpreting the Florida “Stand Your Ground” law. But, unfortunately, a complex analysis of the intersection of dangerous racial stereotypes and self-defense principles is required.
Sections 776.012 and 776.031 of the law permit the use of deadly force against another in self-defense or the defense of others, respectively – but only within a narrow set of circumstances. The letter of the Florida statute permits the use of deadly force and says a person does not have a duty to retreat if he reasonably believes such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself or another or to prevent the imminent commission of a forcible felony.
As set forth, this should be a very high standard to establish; however, the Sanford justice system made the determination simply by taking George Zimmerman’s word for it as Trayvon Martin lay dead, incapable of sharing his side of the story.
This law deals in life and death. Given the value our society places on life, on its face, the Florida statute warrants investigation of the matter beyond a simple onsite inquiry of the killer. Thus the law’s permission of the use of deadly force, while problematic, is not the chief driver in the Sanford PD’s failure to arrest and initiate prosecution. Instead, it is Section 776.032, the “immunity” provision in the statute, that is a major cause of the Sanford PD’s defective actions.
Section 776.032 makes a user of justifiable force immune from criminal prosecution and civil action, and defines “criminal prosecution” to include arrests, detention and even charging the defendant. Further it goes on to state that law enforcement may not arrest the person for using force unless it determines there was probable cause that the force that was used was unlawful.
Ultimately, this law is flawed for it discourages even the most preliminary steps in seeking justice, namely detaining a potential manslaughterer or murderer. It continues by requiring a court to award attorney’s fees, court costs and compensation for loss of income to a defendant prosecuted when they stand immune pursuant to the statute. Thus, it effectively discourages law enforcement from arresting, detaining and investigating someone like Zimmerman because law officers do not want to be the agents responsible for costing their departments money and jeopardizing their employment.
Despite the law’s flaws, it would seem that it still permits an arrest in this case because the facts and circumstances surrounding Trayvon’s death overwhelmingly establish probable cause to arrest Zimmerman. Zimmerman’s 911 calls make it clear that neither he nor anyone, aside from Trayvon it turns out, was in imminent danger of death, serious bodily injury or victimization of forcible felony. Zimmerman had time to call the police and provide an extensive report of the situation – that alone shatters any claim by him of believing imminent danger. Further, he was instructed by the law enforcement agent on the other end of the 911 call not to pursue Trayvon, yet he continued against those clear instructions. Had he allowed police to arrive on the scene and manage the situation, Trayvon would be alive today and no one would’ve been harmed.
This leads us to the elephant in the room, the role that the race and ethnicity of Zimmerman and Trayvon, respectively, have played in this tragedy. The Florida statute allows for a person’s mind state to impact the legality of a killing. The interpretation by Zimmerman, a White Hispanic man, of Trayvon as a threat because he was a Black teen, dressed in a hoodie, is ultimately the reason why Trayvon is dead today. His belief that Trayvon was a threat at all was based primarily on Zimmerman’s stereotyping of Black teens. There is evidence to this effect abound in the tone of his statements to the 911 dispatcher, which may even include a racial epithet describing Trayvon. This highlight’s what is probably the biggest shortcoming of “Stand Your Ground” laws. Someone’s life may ultimately be taken away based on a person’s biases.
Now that many more facts about this case have been unearthed, there can be little debate that Zimmerman should be arrested and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. Our justice system’s adversarial process will afford him an opportunity to establish a self-defense fight against conviction, but he should have that burden and it should require more than a simple assertion that Trayvon attacked him.
Beyond justice for Trayvon, Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law must be taken under review as well as those of the various other states that have similar laws to prevent similar tragedies from occurring. For deeper understanding of self-defense laws I recommend a review of my book, When the Cops Come Knockin’: An Illustrated Guide to Criminal Law. The discussion around Trayvon’s death must be elevated so we can move closer to justice. For that to happen all engaged must become more knowledgeable of the criminal laws.