Self Defense, Stand Your Ground and the Castle Doctrine

The fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman in February 2012 has sparked a high level of media attention, public scrutiny, and scholarly debate. Many months after the shooting, there seems to be more questions than answers. While it remains unclear what effect the killing will ultimately have on the laws of Florida and the United States, the death of Martin, and the fate of Zimmerman will undoubtedly continue to stir controversy.

On February 26, 2012, Martin, a 17 year-old African American, was visiting the gated community in Sanford, Florida where Zimmerman, a 28 year-old multi-ethnic Hispanic American, was considered the coordinator of the neighborhood crime watch group. That night, Zimmerman would fatally shoot Martin. How and why remains a mystery. Was it self-defense? Or was it racially based and unjustified?

Media reports following the shooting have often focused on Florida’s statute regarding self-defense. Specifically, much of the national discussion concerns Florida’s “stand your ground” provision which allows a person to use force against another person, without a duty to retreat, if he has a reasonable belief he is threatened. Using this defense, Zimmerman claims he acted in self-defense when he shot the single bullet that killed Martin. Accordingly, Zimmerman claims, under Florida law he was not required to retreat, nor was he prohibited from using deadly force.

States have enacted different statutes that offer a varying array of protection to defendants who may have used force in situations similar to Zimmerman. There are two historical legal theories that often work together to form the basis of a state’s particular statute: (1) the “Castle doctrine” which holds that a person does not have a duty to retreat when protecting his home from an intruder; and (2) the “stand your ground” or “no duty to retreat” doctrine, which establishes the circumstances in which a person may use force against an assailant, without any obligation to seek safety in order to avoid a confrontation.

Over half of the states in the U.S. have adopted some version of the Castle doctrine. In general, the castle doctrine identifies the home as a place where a person is permitted to use force, including deadly force, to defend against an intruder without facing criminal prosecution. Under this principle, it is presumed the person had a legitimate fear of imminent risk of death or serious bodily harm in this situation.

In California, for example, the unlawful, forcible entry into one’s residence by someone who is not a member of the household creates a presumption that the resident has a reasonable fear of imminent peril of death or great bodily injury, and therefore, the use of deadly force against the intruder is justifiable. Consequently, if such a person is later facing felony charges for taking action, his criminal defense attorney can argue the person was justified in acting.

Florida, however, is one of about 17 states that have extended the Castle doctrine further by enacting stand your ground laws that permit the use of force in circumstances beyond protecting one’s home. States have allowed the use of force to protect one’s automobile or even public places. In Florida, there is no duty to retreat or abandon a location in which one is legally allowed to be. Therefore, Zimmerman may argue that he was lawfully on the common grounds of the gated community where he lived, and because he had no duty to retreat, he was justified in using deadly force against Martin, who he alleges was the an intruder, and acted aggressively.

Zimmerman has been charged with second degree murder in Martin’s shooting death. The outcome of his trial will likely promote further discussion by the public, legislators, and legal community, as well as create changes in law as well as public opinion.