Florida's Self-Defense Laws and the Killing of Trayvon Martin

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I haven't blogged about the shooting of Trayvon Martin by a neighborhood watch captain, George Zimmerman, because I've found the killing depressingly familiar. For those who haven't kept up, the details are as follows:

Police say Zimmerman called police around 7:30 p.m. on Feb. 26 to report a suspicious person. The dispatcher told him to wait for patrol officers. At one point, Zimmerman followed the teen, stepped out of the car and they began to fight, Lee said.

"When dispatchers told him not to do anything, it was just a recommendation," Lee said. "There is evidence that George Zimmerman acted in self-defense."

He would not say what the evidence was.

Why Zimmerman got out of the car and what led to the altercation are still unknown. Zimmerman, who had a concealed weapons permit, carried a black Kel Tek 9mm semi-automatic pistol.

Martin's pockets contained $22, Skittles candy and a can of iced tea when he died, police said. The family filed a lawsuit to demand recordings of the conversation between Zimmerman and the police dispatcher.

Police have declined to release the tape until the investigation is concluded.

"They are passing the buck," said family attorney Benjamin Crump. "The entire time he was defending Mr. Zimmerman. But we'll see what will come next."

The theory that Zimmerman was acting in self-defense got me wondering about the threshold for such a claim. As it turns out, Flordia has one of the broadest set of self-defense statutes in the country. Unlike many states, you need not retreat before employing self-defense, for instance. The relevant portions of the law--as much as I can tell--seem to be as follows.

Zimmerman could lawfully shoot Martin if he, "knew or had reason to believe that an unlawful and forcible entry or unlawful and forcible act was occurring or had occurred." Know unlawful act had occurred or was occurring. If Zimmerman had "reason to believe" such an act was in progress, the police have declined to cite it. My hope is that the vague charge of looking "suspicious" would not meet that threshold.

Zimmerman could also lawfully shoot Martin if Zimmerman was..

...attacked in any other place where he or she has a right to be has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony

This strikes me as a really broad self-defense statute. If I'm reading this right, Zimmerman can shoot Martin if he can show that he believed it was "necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm." In other words, the objective of fact of being in danger need not be demonstrated, only the perception. In a case where there are no witnesses, the only person who can actually testify to that belief, is the shooter. The "commission of a forcible felony" seems to offer even more wiggle room, though I'm not sure.

The implications of such a broadly-drawn statute are rather breath-taking, and basically seem to defer to the judgements of the police and prosecutors. If you are someone, for whatever reason, who elicits the sympathies of law enforcement you likely will walk free--as Zimmerman has. If you don't, and law enforcement decided to make an issue of your alleged "belief" than you likely would be arrested.

I am not sure what to make of Zimmerman's history, or its relevance to its case. Nevertheless here it is. He was arrested in 2005 for "suspicion of battery on a law enforcement officer." Those charges were dropped. A neighbor has claimed, anonymously, that Zimmerman had been repeatedly accused of overly-aggressive tactics. Given the lack of details in the former charge, and the lack of attribution in the latter, I'm not sure how much any of this clarifies.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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