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How Could Florida’s Self-Defense Laws Influence Trayvon Martin Case?

Self-defense is an affirmative defense in a criminal action brought against a person accused of causing someone's death. This means that the burden is on the defendant accused of the killing to prove that he or she acted within the law's definition of self-defense.  If the defendant is able to successfully prove that his or her behavior fit within the specific legal requirements necessary for self-defense to be a viable defense, then the defendant can be absolved of legal responsibility for the crime, explains a California personal injury lawyer.


In many clear-cut cases of self-defense, a prosecutor will not even charge the potential defendant for the killing because it is clear that the defendant acted within his or her legal rights and would not be found guilty. In other instances when the facts of what occurred are less clear, a prosecutor or district attorney may choose to try the case in order to allow a judge or jury to evaluate whether the defendant actually acted in self-defense. 


One recent case has raised issues of exactly when a person is permitted to use deadly force in self-defense. The shooting took place in Florida in February 2012. A 28-year-old Hispanic American man named George Zimmerman shot Trayvon Martin, an unarmed African American teenager. Zimmerman was the coordinator of the neighborhood watch for the community where the shooting took place. 


Zimmerman alleged that he was out running errands when he observed Martin within the gated community. Believing that Martin was behaving in a suspicious manner, Zimmerman contacted the police department. 


When law enforcement arrived a short time later, they found that Zimmerman had fatally shot Trayvon Martin. Because Martin was unarmed and the extent of Zimmerman’s injuries was unclear, the failure to charge Zimmerman with the murder of Martin led to a firestorm of media coverage and to allegations of racism. Subsequently, in mid-April, Zimmerman was charged with second-degree murder.  


In order for the use of deadly force to be justified, generally the law requires that an individual be in imminent danger or be witness to a third party in imminent danger. Whatever is causing the threat of harm must be unlawful, and the person using deadly force must have a reasonable belief that this level of force is required in order to avoid harm to him- or herself or to a third party.   


While these are general rules, there are different legal requirements from state to state regarding when a person may use deadly force.   For instance, in many states, a common law rule requires people to retreat before using deadly force if they are outside of their home. This is sometimes referred to as the "castle" doctrine since the fact that no retreat is required in the home stems from a belief that a man's home is his "castle."


Florida’s laws, however, do not require a defendant in a self-defense case to prove that he or she retreated if the attack took place away from his or her home. Under the state’s Stand Your Ground law, Zimmerman would only have to show that he reasonably believed that he was at risk of imminent harm or that a forcible felony was about to occur. Moreover, in Florida, it is the burden of the prosecution to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant’s use of deadly force is not justified by a claim of self-defense. 


There has been much speculation as to whether Florida’s Stand Your Ground rule will serve as an impediment to convicting Zimmerman or the case will ultimately lead to a revision of the state’s self-defense laws—all of which remains to be seen as the trial progresses. 


Additional information on this and other legal issues is available to the public free of charge through our office’s Preferred Friends and Clients Program.


If you would like to request one of these free resources, or to speak with a California personal injury lawyer, feel free to call 866-981-5596. 



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