(This piece is from April 2012, soon after the shooting. For an updated look post trial, map of stand your ground states, and a current list of 2013 bills, see this post)
Following the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, “Stand Your Ground” or “No Duty to Retreat” laws have received much scrutiny from the media. While most of the attention has been on Florida, many states have similar Stand Your Ground laws, and a large majority of states have No Duty to Retreat laws for more limited circumstances. Some state legislatures have reacted by introducing bills to limit the application of these laws, while a handful of others are keeping alive bills to expand Stand Your Ground principles.
Overview of Current Law
The Castle Doctrine, named for the dictum “a man’s home is his castle,” asserts that people have a heightened sense of security in their homes and affords them certain legal protections and immunities.
Most states have enacted laws incorporating some version of the “Castle Doctrine,” granting citizens an absolute right to defend their homes from an intruder. This includes the right to use deadly force without imposing any duty to attempt retreat. While details vary between states, with some extending the Castle Doctrine to occupied vehicles and places of employment, they generally all require:
1) The intruder against whom force is used must have made or be attempting an unlawful or forcible entry and be acting illegally;
2) The occupant has a legal right to be in the building or vehicle; and
3) The occupant must reasonably believe the intruder intends to inflict serious bodily harm to the occupant or another person.
A few states, such as Colorado and Texas, broaden the second requirement to allow deadly force against intruders threatening property, not just persons. While there is room to debate the morality of taking a life to protect property without a threat to physical safety, Castle laws are relatively uncontroversial as the principle can be traced through American jurisprudence back to 17th century English common law, and as far back as the Bible.
Stand Your Ground
The term “Stand Your Ground” refers to laws that extend the “no duty to retreat” language to self-defense situations that arise outside the home (or vehicle or workplace). Stand Your Ground laws have much less historical precedent than Castle laws, and are often referred to as “shoot first” laws by detractors. The principles are largely the same as Castle laws, other than lacking the requirement of the confrontation occurring in a home or other protected place. Stand Your Ground laws generally require that the person asserting the justification had a “reasonable” belief that deadly force was necessary to prevent imminent death or serious bodily injury to himself or another person, or in states such as Florida and Alabama, to prevent the commission of certain “forcible felonies.”
The controversy around Stand Your Ground laws stems primarily from the difficulty in determining what beliefs are reasonable. Some states’ statutes list presumptively “reasonable” situations to use deadly force, such as when an intruder enters your home or attempts a car-jacking (thereby codifying the Castle doctrine). In these situations a reasonableness determination would be quite straightforward, as most people would likely have a strong fear for their physical safety if they discovered an intruder in their homes. It’s also pretty easy to identify the good guy and the bad guy in that situation, since you can figure out who lives there and who doesn’t.
Confrontations that occur on the street can be much more nuanced, making the reasonableness determination more difficult, as seen in the Trayvon Martin case. Since both parties to the confrontation may have had a legal right to be where they were, eye-witness testimony is necessary to figure out what really happened – and often enough, the only living witness is the shooter.
Another area of controversy in Stand Your Ground legislation surrounds the overly broad class of felonies that some states allow use of deadly force to prevent. Both Florida’s and Alabama’s laws list burglary in this group of felonies, which is by definition the illegal entry of a building with the intent to commit a crime therein. Since this can include crimes that threaten only property and not personal safety, it again invites the moral debate of the value of human life verses the value of personal property.
Following is a list of all states with active legislation to amend their Castle Doctrine or Stand Your Ground laws. All of the bills that have been introduced since the Trayvon Martin controversy limit application of “no duty to retreat;” however, there are several active bills that were introduced prior to the case that would expand the Castle Doctrine or Stand Your Ground law. Unsurprisingly, this has become a very partisan issue, as the bills to limit Stand Your Ground are all co-sponsored entirely by Democrats, and all but one of the co-sponsors of legislation to expand Stand Your Ground are Republicans.
States Limiting Castle Doctrine or Stand Your Ground Laws
- Alabama HB694
- This bill is seemingly tailored to fit the Trayvon Martin case perfectly – it retains the Stand Your Ground law, but adds to a list of times when use of force is not justified: “he or she initially pursued another person engaged in a lawful activity in a public place and the pursuit resulted in a confrontation and the use of force, including deadly physical force, against the person initially pursued.”
- Georgia HB1308
- Would eliminate the “no duty to retreat” language from the self-defense statute.
- Kentucky SB218
- Adds EMTs and paramedics to the list of people (previously “peace officers”) against whom deadly force may not be used when they try to enter a building in pursuance of their official duties.
- South Carolina H5072, S1415(identical)
- Would remove “no duty to retreat” provision for threats in places other than dwelling, residence, or occupied vehicle; leaves Castle Doctrine intact.
States Expanding Castle Doctrine or Stand Your Ground Laws
- Would extend the Castle Doctrine to “places of worship” currently applies to dwellings, residences, occupied vehicles, and places of business.
- HB2702, SB1946(identical)
- Would expand the Castle Doctrine definition of an intruder to include someone who enters “by deception and with violent intent.”
- Would create a state Stand Your Ground law by adding “no duty to retreat” when a person is threatened anywhere they have a legal right to be; would also remove the power of the governor to restrict possession of firearms during a state of emergency
- Similar to the House bill above, would create a state Stand Your Ground law; would also add a presumption of a reasonable fear of death or bodily harm from an intruder in a dwelling, residence, or vehicle; would also provide criminal and civil immunity for those claiming lawful use of force, including immunity from arrest – meaning, the police must make a probable cause determination that the use of force was not lawful before they can even make an arrest.
- Nebraska LB298
- Would create a state Stand Your Ground right, expand Castle Doctrine to allow deadly force to protect property in a dwelling or occupied vehicle, and provide civil immunity.
- Note – this bill was introduced prior to the Trayvon Martin shooting, but has been indefinitely postponed as of April 18, 2012.