What exactly is Florida’s ‘Stand Your Ground’ law?

For the past month, Americans have been trying to learn the true facts surrounding the controversial February 26, 2012 shooting death of Trayvon Martin. As each new piece of evidence surfaces, such as the police station video of alleged shooter George Zimmerman, the public has become more intrigued and, in many circles, enraged about the incident.

Thus far, Zimmerman has not been arrested or charged with any crime, and prosecutors have cited Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law as the basis. At the same time, however, Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) has appointed a special prosecutor who is actively reviewing the case.

“Stand Your Ground” has been tossed around by those who want Zimmerman arrested as the basis for an alleged injustice. But those same critics would be best served learning more about “Stand Your Ground,” for regardless of their feelings about the law, its contents will determine if Zimmerman is ever charged in the shooting death of Martin.

In relevant part, Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law provides that “a person who is not engaged in an unlawful activity and who is 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.”

When a person’s actions fall into that description, they do not just have an affirmative defense they can use at trial. Rather, the law goes further and immunizes the person from arrest, detention in custody, being charged, and being prosecuted. This explains in large part why Zimmerman has not been arrested; the prosecutors have insufficient evidence and are simply complying with state law.

Against this backdrop, is there any chance that Zimmerman will be charged? And if he is charged, would we see a show trial that resembles that of O.J. Simpson for murder?

First, to charge Zimmerman with Martin’s death, the state must first have probable cause that Zimmerman did not reasonably believe his gunshot was necessary to protect him from Martin inflicting great bodily harm. According to Zimmerman’s account to police, though, Martin had initially punched him and repeatedly slammed his head into the sidewalk. If prosecutors substantiate Zimmerman’s account, there are no grounds for Zimmerman’s arrest, let alone prosecution.

But if the evidence shows otherwise and the state determines it has probable cause, it could arrest Zimmerman and charge him with the shooting death. Even if this occurs, however, there would not immediately be a jury trial.

According to Florida Supreme Court guidance, the “Stand Your Ground” law gives defendants a substantive right to avoid being subjected to a trial. Therefore, Zimmerman would receive a special pretrial hearing to determine if “Stand Your Ground” applies to his case.

At this hearing, a judge, not a jury, would review the evidence in the case. And as long as Zimmerman proves by a preponderance of the evidence that law applies, the judge would dismiss the charges and immunize him from prosecution. This makes a conviction of Zimmerman on any offense arising out of the Martin incident even more unlikely.

As the intrigue over this case continues, public pressure may lead to modifications to “Stand Your Ground.” If there are future modifications to the the law, it will likely narrow the immunity to when persons are defending themselves, rather than initiating confrontation.

To this end, former Gov. Jeb Bush (R-FL), who signed the measure into law, recently stated that “Stand Your Ground” should not have immunized Zimmerman’s conduct. “Stand your ground means stand your ground. It doesn’t mean chase after somebody who’s turned their back,” said Bush.

In the end, given the “Stand Your Ground” law, it is unlikely that Zimmerman will be charged with Martin’s death and even more doubtful that Zimmerman would be convicted of any offense. Further, any modifications to the law would not reach the Zimmerman case, as criminal laws cannot be changed retroactively.

Out of Martin’s death, one can hope the incident serves as an informed referendum on the “Stand Your Ground” law, rather than a politically charged inquisition about the facts in the case which will not change the underlying law in its application to Zimmerman or bring a 17-year-old back to life.