Vail Daily column: Make My Day vs. Stand Your Ground
Forty-four of the 50 states have at least some form of deadly force law on the book. More than half of these, including Colorado’s, are “castle” laws in one guise or another. And, yes, the term derives from the colloquialism that a man’s home is his castle.
What then of the others? What then of the Stand Your Ground laws?
Well, the concept could be borrowed from that old Tom Petty song:
Well I won’t back down, no I won’t back down.
You could stand me up at the gates of hell
But I won’t back down.
Gonna stand my ground, won’t be turned around
And I’ll keep this world from draggin’ me down
And I’ll stand my ground and I won’t back down.
And all of this, of course, derives from the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman tragedy arising out of Florida which has captured so much media attention.
In case you’ve recently been AWOL, a quick recap of the Martin case is this: Zimmerman, a self-appointed neighborhood watch captain, spied young hoodie-clad Trayvon Martin in his neighborhood. Martin was, by Zimmerman’s lights at least, “acting suspiciously.” Zimmerman followed. A confrontation ensued. And Zimmerman shot Martin – who was armed with no more than a canned iced tea and Skittles – dead. Zimmerman claims that Martin launched on him and Zimmerman acted in self-defense. Invoking Florida’s Stand Your Ground Law, Zimmerman claims, he is innocent of any wrongdoing.
So let’s deconstruct a little. A little comparative anatomy if you will.
The Castle Doctrine (also known as Defense of Habitation Laws) is as old as, well, castles themselves. The British common law dictum that “an Englishman’s home is his castle” is a concept that was established in English law by at least the 17th century when the esteemed jurist, Sir Edward Coke, included it, in 1628, in his The Institutes of the Laws of England. The concept was later carried both by human nature and the colonists to the New World. Of course, the colonists ultimately relieved their shores of both the corporeal presence of Englishmen themselves and the word “Englishman” from the phrase, which thereafter became known, as if we invented it ourselves, despite extraordinary paucity of American castles, simply as the Castle Doctrine. The term has been used to imply a person’s absolute right to exclude anyone from his home, by force if necessary, if the person is threatened.
The doctrine designates a person’s abode (or, in some states, any place legally occupied, such as a car or place of work) as a place in which the person has certain protections and immunities. He may, in certain circumstances, repel an intruder by force – even deadly force – without becoming liable to prosecution. Typically deadly force is considered justified, and a defense of justifiable homicide is applicable in cases where the actor “reasonably feared imminent peril of death or serious bodily harm” to himself or another in his home. The doctrine is not a defined law that can be invoked, but a set of principles which is incorporated in some form in the law of most states. It is worth noting, however, that one cannot willy-nilly open fire on the next door-to-door salesman or missionary who shambles to your door. The fear of serious bodily harm or peril of death must be reasonable to justify the use of deadly force.
The term “Make My Day Law” arose in 1985 when Colorado enacted its Castle statute. The law, like others of its kind in other states, protects a person from criminal charges or civil liability if he uses force – including deadly force – against one invading his home. Timing is everything and Colorado had the fortune – good or bad – of enacting its law in the wake of the then recently released and widely popular Dirty Harry film, “Sudden Impact,” wherein Clint Eastwood’s character Harry Callahan uttered the memorable line, “Go ahead, make my day.” Better, I suppose than adopting Clara Peller’s “Where’s the beef?” which was all the buzz during the same benighted era. I shudder to imagine Colorado’s “What’s Your Beef Law”!
Stand Your Ground Laws are different.
In some states, Florida among them, the use of deadly force is not necessarily restricted to your home, nor even your car or place of 9-to-5-ing. In those states, one may use deadly force without attempting to retreat in any location. Such laws also generally eliminate the requirement that your own property is threatened. Force may be used to protect any one or even property which may be reasonably imperiled. Currently, there are 17 states with one form or another of a Stand Your Ground Law.
What is common among the Stand Your Ground states (and different than in “Defense of Habitation” states) is the precept that a person may use force in self-defense when there is reasonable belief of a serious threat without an obligation to first retreat and without the offender having to cross one’s transom or threaten one within his home. In some cases, a person may even employ deadly force in public areas. Under this conception, a person may be justified in using deadly force in certain situations and the law would be a defense or immunity to criminal charges and civil suit.
Stand Your Ground Laws posit one has no duty to abandon a place in which he has a right to be, or to give up ground to an assailant. Still, though, the use of force must be reasonable and justified.
What happened on that sad night in Sanford, Fla., may never be fully known. What is certain, though, is this: under Florida’s Stand Your Ground Law, if George Zimmerman indeed reasonably felt threatened and deployed deadly force to repel what he claims was his attacker, prosecution for the killing may not ever find him. And, at the end of the day, justice – both legal and moral justice – may or may not be truly served.
Rohn K. Robbins is an attorney licensed before the bars of Colorado and California who practices in the Vail Valley with the law firm of Stevens, Littman, Biddision, Tharp and Weinberg LLC. His practice areas include business and commercial transactions, real estate and development, family law, custody, divorce and civil litigation. He may be heard on Wednesdays at 7 p.m. on KZYR radio (97.7 FM) and seen on ECOTV 18 as host of “Community Focus.” Robbins may be reached at 970-926-4461 or at either of his e-mail addresses, firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.