“Stand your Ground”

By Lenard Wells

Published on April 12, 2012

On April 26, 2005, Governor Jeb Bush signed the Stand Your Ground legislation for the state of Florida. According to Florida State Statute 776.013(3), a person who is not engaged in an unlawful activity is allowed to protect themselves with deadly force. The law states the person has no duty to retreat. Anyone who acts under color of this statute cannot be arrested, prosecuted criminally or held liable in a civil action.

Florida Statute 776.032 deters law enforcement officers from arresting a person who claims “self-defense” under the Stand Your Ground Law in those cases where there are no direct eye-witnesses. A person claiming self-defense under the Stand Your Ground Law is given immunity from prosecution and civil liability. The inevitable results are what you see in the Trayvon Martin case. The law deters a reasonable and thorough investigation of a crime involving deadly force by police.

From the Sanford Police Department video tapes, Zimmerman is observed in handcuffs inside of the police station. By law he is under arrest. Since he had not been criminally charged, someone had to order his release. Who makes that decision? What is the protocol established by the law enforcement agency and the prosecutors for processing these cases?

The tragic death of Trayvon Martin also points out many of the social shortcomings of our society in its interaction with African Americans. It also highlights how laws are used to legitimize stereotypes. For example, when we can’t address neighborhood prostitution – we legislate against it. When we can’t address sagging pants – we legislate against it. When we can’t reconcile an unnatural fear of an African American male – we create Stand Your Ground laws. Many will attest that a fear of crime is a fear of African Americans.

Research (Click for reference) will show that many women who are victims of repeat domestic violence with genuine fear of their assailant who eventually stand their ground have been sent to prison. No law protects them as they respond to a real fear of domestic violence.

One individual responding to her fear of crime was Marion Hammer (Click for reference). Ms. Hammer is described as an over 70 year old white female grandmother (Click for reference).

Ms. Hammer led the charge along with the National Rifle Association to “bully” through the Stand Your Ground law. The legislation received overwhelming support from Florida law makers but condemnation from Florida law enforcement community.

On February 26, 2012 Trayvon Martin became a teenage victim of the Stand Your Ground Law and one person unwarranted fear of an African American male. The zeal to be tough on crime along with the efforts of the National Rifle Association to arm all Americans has resulted in the death of an innocent African American seventeen year old.

The emotion of this needless death is being compared to the response that followed the murder of Emmett Till (JimCrow.org). Emmitt Till was a 14 year old African American male brutally murdered in Mississippi during our nation’s Jim Crow era. He was accused of flirting with a white woman. The flirting resulted in him being savagely beaten to death. Emmett Till mother allowed her son body to be displayed in Jet Magazine and it shocked the conscience of a nation (Click for reference).

The emotion of the death of Trayvon Martin reached the White House. President Barack Obama responded to the question of a reporter regarding the death of Trayvon Martin. “If I had a son, he would look like Trayvon.” This brought the death to another personal level for African Americans and others. President Obama expressed a belief that is shared by so many African American parents and grandparents, “only by the grace of God was this Trayvon Martin and not my son or grandson.”

Another response to the fear of African American males is to demonize the victim. There are some who take the African American victim and give it a criminal profile to minimize the action taken against them. Can an African American be a victim? The criminal courts historically have proceeded cautiously regarding the relevancy of ones past in trial proceedings. In fact, there are Rape Shield Laws that protects women from being cross-examined regarding their sexual history. In the aftermath of his death, is it important to paint a picture of Trayvon Martin as a “bad person?” Is it time to openly address the misguided fear of African Americans by whites?

The Stand Your Ground law allows use of force to be determined by fear. In essence, the fear of African Americans and African American youth specifically is cause to “Stand Your Ground” and take a life.

Historically, the use of deadly force in response to fear of another human being was reserved for members of law enforcement. The use of deadly force could be justified by an officer fearing for their safety and/or the safety of others. The numerous questionable use of deadly force allegations against police officers have resulted in an erosion of the fear of safety excuse for the use of deadly force.

One of the historic precedents for this erosion is found in Tennessee versus Garner (Click for reference). Tennessee like other states had a law that allowed police officers to use deadly force to stop felons. Law enforcement agencies had corresponding rules and policies regarding the use of deadly force to stop a felon.

In 1974, officers of the Memphis police department responded to a burglary complaint (Click here for reference). An officer observed the suspect fleeing from the scene. The officer testified that he feared the suspect would be able to escape capture by going over a six feet fence. The officer shot and killed the suspect.

The case made its way to the United States Supreme Court (Click for reference). The crime investigated by the officers was a felony burglary. The Court recognized burglary as a serious offense. The Court also recognized that the officer had no other grounds to use deadly force beyond the state law and department policy allowing him to do so. The suspect was unarmed and had no intimidating features in size or build. The Court did not believe there was any reason for the officer to believe the suspect was a threat.

The Court added that an unarmed suspect who has broken into a dwelling is not grounds to automatically mean the suspect is dangerous. The Supreme Court ruled that deadly force cannot be used against a fleeing felon absent some known threat. Being a felon and fear was not enough. Yet, the Florida law gives private citizens legal authority to use their fear as grounds to take a life.

This authority! This power! Authority and power over who lives and dies was taking away from law enforcement by the Supreme Court is now being put in the hands of private citizens to act under lesser circumstances than required by a police officer. If you cannot legislate and create rules to address police related shootings, why would you give more discretion to private citizens?

The tough question remain, “if shoot-or-don’t shoot” was a difficult decision for trained law enforcement personnel, how would it be more efficient by spreading it to private citizens? The Courts, law enforcement agencies, and members of the community have restricted the power and authority of police officers use of the “fear of personal safety” and fleeing felon rules as reasons to use deadly force.

The state of Florida added to the problem by muddying the water for law enforcement and prosecutors in the investigation of Stand Your Ground claims. Further, family members of the victims have no grounds to bring civil actions against the perpetrator for wrongful death.

The law allows private citizens to use deadly force because they feel threatened as opposed to being threatened. Their feelings and perceptions guide their action not actions of others. Law Enforcement officers are trained to evaluate and not just act on fear. They must act on the threat of force and fear for their safety and the safety of others. It is not enough to be afraid. There must be a legitimate threat.

The questions raised by citizens and others regarding the use of deadly force by police have resulted in a demand for change. Many municipalities and law enforcement agencies have review boards and panels to examine officers’ conduct regarding the use of deadly force. All use of deadly force by law enforcement is subject to some form of prosecutorial review. I admit the process is not perfect but does the imperfection necessitate a shift of the use of deadly force to private citizens?

If you have contacted the police and they inform you not to follow, if your block watch rules tells you not to follow and carry a gun, are you Standing Your Ground?

Another area of concern is the number of justifiable homicides in Florida and other states with similar Stand Your Grounds laws. It is troubling that we have not adequately monitored or examined the circumstances of these deaths. The Stand Your Ground and similar legislation at the insistence of the NRA and others who fear African Americans has marched across the nation like Sherman through Georgia.

The Author

Lenard Wells, wrote this article from the perspective of a retired Lieutenant of Police with over 30 years in the criminal justice system.Recognized as a persuasive and professional communicator, Lenard Wells holds a PhD from Cardinal Stritch University, Milwaukee.He was appointed as Director of Adult Education for Concordia University South/Hales Center (Miller Park Way). He grew the Center from 50 students to approximately 400 students in less than four years. The Center grew from the smallest of the 13 Concordia’s Center to the largest.

Lenard Wells’s numerous awards include: The United States Postal Authorities, “Hero of the Year”, Positive Achiever Award, Jefferson Award Nominee, Black Research Organization Selection as “One of 100 Most Influential Black Milwaukeeans”, and the Scott Fellowship & Recreation Center Harvest Award.

Article picture: Pixabay


Law & Philosophy