Page Pate was recently interviewed on WABE about the similarity of Georgia’s “stand your ground” self-defense statute with Florida law in the wake of the February shooting of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida. That shooting has ignited controversy across the nation over the role that the state’s “Stand Your Ground” law had in creating the circumstances of Martin’s death and in preventing Florida law enforcement from arresting George Zimmerman, the shooter. The federal government has now begun own investigation into Martin’s death and it seems likely that some action may ultimately be taken against Zimmerman. Exactly what crime he might be charged with under Florida law is far from certain though.
Florida’s Stand Your Ground law is an expansion of the “Castle Doctrine,” a principle providing that an individual may use deadly force in his own home (his “castle”) against an intruder, without any duty to retreat or avoid confrontation, if he feels the intruder poses a danger of death or serious bodily injury. In other words, he can “stand his ground” and put up a fight.
The Castle Doctrine, with certain variations, has been adopted in virtually every state either legislatively or judicially. In its most extreme form, such as Colorado’s “Make My Day” law, an expanded Castle Doctrine permits homeowners to shoot and kill an intruder virtually at will, without either criminal or civil liability.
Florida’s version of the law was passed in 2005 with the backing of the NRA. While it is a less radical law than Colorado’s, it is still broadly written and provides immunity for those who use violence in self-defense not just in the home, but in businesses, in automobiles, and even on the street. Even in 2005, critics warned that the broadly worded law would promote vigilantism, primarily aimed at African Americans. In the years since, justifiable homicides under the new law have tripled and the vast majority of those killed have been unarmed.
Nearly half the states—including Georgia—have now passed largely similar Stand Your Ground laws. Florida is truly exceptional not so much in the circumstances it provides the defense (defending yourself or others, a home, or other properties), but in the ease with which the defense can be claimed. If a property owner kills an intruder in his home, it’s almost impossible to disprove the defense because the law presumes that the intruder was dangerous and a deadly threat. Moreover, since the intruder is typically dead, there will likely be no one to offer an alternate story. The homeowner is simply under no obligation at all to show or prove that he acted in actual self-defense, or that he believed the intruder was armed.
Outside the home, on the street as during Trayvon Martin’s death, a person using deadly force and claiming the Stand Your Ground defense need only show a reasonable belief that he or another was imminently threatened with deadly force. This sounds reasonable on its face until you notice that there is no requirement to retreat and no limitation to non-aggressors. The Florida legislators who sponsored the 2005 law have spoken out claiming that it does not provide a defense when the person using violence is the aggressor. The law, however, contains no such limitations.
Georgia’s Stand Your Ground law is largely similar to the justification laws in other states, including Florida. It permits defense of one’s home with force reasonably necessary to stop a trespass, but deadly force only in limited circumstances. The Georgia Stand Your Ground law governing defense of oneself or others is broadly worded, much like the Florida law. O.C.G.A. § 16-3-21 provides justification for the use of force where it “is necessary to defend [against another’s] imminent use of unlawful force.” Force likely to cause death or serious injury, however, may only be used “if he or she reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent death or great bodily injury to himself or herself or a third person or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.”
Were that all, Georgia’s self-defense statute would be largely similar to Florida’s. However, O.C.G.A. §16-3-21 provides explicit limits on who can claim the defense. Specifically, the defense will not apply where the person using force
(1) Initially provokes the use of force against himself with the intent to use such force as an excuse to inflict bodily harm upon the assailant;
(2) Is attempting to commit, committing, or fleeing after the commission or attempted commission of a felony; or
(3) Was the aggressor or was engaged in a combat by agreement unless he withdraws from the encounter and effectively communicates to such other person his intent to do so and the other, notwithstanding, continues or threatens to continue the use of unlawful force.
These lines demonstrate the basic difference between the text of the Florida and Georgia Stand Your Ground laws. Whether or not Florida’s law was intended to allow aggressors to invoke the defense, it does not have the explicit exceptions that Georgia’s law does. That fact alone may not be determinative if Zimmerman is found untrustworthy by a jury, in which case they could convict simply by not believing him. But the case has to get to a jury first, and the lack of exceptions in the Florida law, combined with the difficulty Florida police and prosecutors claim to have in prosecuting those who claim self-defense, add a level of uncertainty that should largely be avoided in Georgia.