March 25, 2012— -- Police in Sanford, Fla., have become the target of anger and protest around the country for failing to arrest George Zimmerman after he shot 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.
But Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law may have given them little choice.
That law grants immunity to anyone who uses deadly force, inside or outside his home, if he can reasonably claim he was defending himself.
When police arrived at the scene, Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer, had grass stains on his back and an injury to his head. He said he'd gotten them fighting Martin off. Recordings of 911calls would later raise questions about his claim of self-defense, but with only one survivor from that deadly encounter, police at the time had only Zimmerman's story to go by.
Stand Your Ground "really ties law enforcement's hands," says Florida law professor Elizabeth Megale, "because immunity is defined so broadly." Immunity, she says, does not just mean you can't be prosecuted. It means you can't be detained.
For defense attorneys, Megale says, Stand Your Ground "is a dream."
Not surprisingly, Florida State Attorney William Meggs sees it differently. "It is a dream alright, a bad one. It's a nightmare," he says.
Florida in 2005 became the first state to pass a Stand Your Ground law. It was backed by the National Rifle Association, supported by legislators from both parties and signed by Gov. Jeb Bush. Twenty other states have followed with similar laws of their own.
The laws expand on the so-called Castle Doctrine, which allow a person to defend himself with deadly force inside his own home (or castle) without first having to retreat. Stand Your Ground eliminates the need to retreat, even outside your own home, so long as you reasonably believe you are in danger.
A subtle change, but a significant one. Combing press reports and state records, The Tampa Bay Times found 130 cases in Florida in which Stand Your Ground was invoked. In more than 70 percent of the cases, someone was killed. But only 28 of the cases went to trial, and only 19 resulted in a guilty verdict.
State Attorney Meggs says because of Stand Your Ground he just lost a case in which a young man was shot to death and the killer went free. "This was a totally unnecessary shooting," he says. It began with a drunken argument in a bar which was resumed later that night on the side of the road. One man was walking, the other was a passenger in a car. The car stopped, the argument began again, the man on the side of the road leaned into the car window, and was shot to death. The Florida Supreme Court ruled the shooter was "standing his ground."
"We have solved a problem with the Stand Your Ground Law that didn't exist," says Meggs. "The people who are using this law are not law abiding citizens. The people who are using this law are thugs and gangs and drug dealers."
At least one Florida legislator has called for a reexamination of Stand Your Ground. But the law's author, State Rep. Dennis Baxley, says the problem is not with the law, but with how it's being applied.
Baxley says George Zimmerman "is on very thin ice" using Stand Your Ground as a defense in the shooting of Trayvon Martin. "There was nothing in this statute ever intended to protect somebody who was pursuing or confronting other people."