Wednesday, July 17, 2013

"The Florida Package"- Clarifying 'New' Self-Defense Terminology

During the lengthy news coverage of the George Zimmerman case, from the initial encounter through the trial and now in trial post-mortems, a number of different terms referring to Florida's self-defense laws have been thrown around and mixed together, resulting in some degree of confusion as to the meaning of these terms. I didn't really consider this a problem, until US Attorney General Eric Holder's speech yesterday at the NAACP convention- where he called for an effort to 'combat' changes in self-defense laws, claiming these changes "cause more violence than they prevent".

Let's clarify some terminology. I will likely use this post as a reference for other posts on the subject.

First, I use term "Florida package" to refer to a set of self-defense law improvements first passed in Florida in 2006 and subsequently adopted in more than 20 other states. In most cases, these states wrote Florida's language, verbatim, into their own state law. Since it is the entire package which is under attack, or will be soon, this is an important distinction.

The package consists of the following changes:

1) "Stand Your Ground"- a provision which states that the individual has 'no duty to retreat' when confronted with a potential deadly threat. In another post, I will go into greater detail as to the need for this provision.

2) "Castle Doctrine"- every state already has (or had) a "castle doctrine" law- a provision which, at the very least, exempted a person from the duty to retreat when confronted in their home. There are two "castle doctrine" changes found in the package: 1) An extension of the doctrine to include a person's temporary lodgings, place of business, and occupied motor vehicle; and 2) a 'rebuttable presumption' that a person using deadly force in one of these places did so out of a reasonable fear of imminent danger. This is important because it adds a 'layer of protection' in the event of prosecution- the prosecutor must disprove the presumption in order to prove his case.

3) Lawsuit immunity- To prevent the defender from being sued by the aggressor or someone else on the aggressor's behalf. The worst cases of this, by the way, were cases from Florida, which is why Florida was the first to enact this.

4) Self-defense hearings- This was discussed during the Zimmerman trial, because his defense attorneys opted not to request this hearing. It also varies the most among the states which have adopted it. In basic terms, the defendant may request a hearing to have charges dropped, in the judge believes there is insufficient evidence to prove that the defendant's actions were not consistent with state self-defense laws.

Some states prohibit the arrest or detention of the accused, unless the state can establish probable cause (to a judge's satisfaction) that the accused's actions were inconsistent with state self-defense laws. This differs from the traditional procedure, where the state only has to show probable cause that the accused committed a criminal offense (easy to do, since the accused essentially admits this, claiming self-defense as a defense to the criminal charge).

One major point of contention: Zimmerman's defense counsel, and virtually all of the media coverage, have suggested that these changes to state law are 'isolated', if you will, from the rest of the self-defense law, and form a separate legal defense- i.e. "We're claiming 'self-defense', not 'Stand Your Ground'"; "We're reserving the right to invoke 'Stand Your Ground'"; "If (Zimmerman) wants to be immune from lawsuit, he'll have to have a 'Stand Your Ground' hearing", etc. I have seen nothing to suggest that this is the case; in fact, in reading these statutes, I can't see how they can be read in this fashion. Each section of the package deals with a different aspect of self-defense laws.

For example- there has been considerable commentary on the last example I gave- that Zimmerman would have to request a "Stand Your Ground" hearing in order to claim lawsuit immunity. This notion ignores the following points:

1) That hearing, as described above, is a pre-trial hearing to determine whether the defendant may be prosecuted at all;

2) The lawsuit immunity appears to be automatic- i.e. the defender is already immune from lawsuit from his aggressor, until he is convicted in criminal court (which Zimmerman was not).

Is this a case of various authorities attempting to limit the application of this package of laws, or is it legal commentators on TV succumbing to the same confusion TV watchers have?

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