State ‘stand-your-ground’ laws examined

Two recent trials have highlighted Florida’s self-defense and “stand-your-ground” laws, fueling calls to review similar laws in other states, including Texas. Stand-your-ground laws typically address whether a person has a duty to retreat from an attacker and what type of force may be used.

In Florida, the 2014 mistrial on first-degree murder charges in the trial of Michael Dunn for the shooting death of 17-year-old Jordan Davis  and the 2013 acquittal of George Zimmerman of second-degree murder and manslaughter charges for the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin have raised questions about when and under what circumstances individuals should be able to use deadly force. While Dunn may face a retrial on the murder charge, he was convicted of attempted murder in the case.

Current Texas law

In Texas, deadly force may be used both to protect people (under Penal Code Title 2, subchapter  C) and to protect property (under Title 2, subchapter D).

Penal Code, sec. 9.32  defines when deadly force is justified in defense of a person. A person must be justified under sec. 9.31 to use force against another for self-defense and reasonably believe it is immediately necessary:

  • to protect against another’s use or attempted use of deadly force; or
  • to prevent another’s imminent commission of aggravated kidnapping, murder, sexual assault, aggravated sexual assault, robbery, or aggravated robbery.

Under sec. 9.31, a belief that use of deadly force was immediately necessary is presumed to be reasonable if a person:

  • knew or had reason to believe that the person against whom the deadly force was used unlawfully and with force entered or attempted to enter the person’s home, vehicle, or place of business or employment; unlawfully and with force removed or attempted to remove someone from one of these places; or was committing or attempting to commit aggravated kidnapping, murder, sexual assault, aggravated sexual assault, robbery, or aggravated robbery;
  • did not provoke the person against whom the force was used; and
  • was not committing a crime, other than a class C misdemeanor traffic violation.

Texas’ stand-your-ground provision, in Penal Code, sec. 9.32(c), says those with a right to be lawfully present at a location, who have not provoked another, and who are not committing a crime are not required to retreat before using force or deadly force.

This was added to Texas law in 2007 in legislation that also established the presumption of reasonableness, if certain conditions are met, for a person’s belief that a use of force or deadly force was immediately necessary and therefore justified. Under the same bill, those who use deadly force that is justified are immune from civil liability for personal injury or death resulting from the use of deadly force.

Other states

As of late 2013, in at least 22 states there is no duty to retreat from an attacker if a person is lawfully present in a public place, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Debate on stand-your-ground laws

While some have called for stand-your-ground laws to be repealed or revised, others support the laws and argue that they should not be changed.

Supporters of stand-your-ground laws say they establish a reasonable policy that allows people to defend themselves in the face of an attack. They say such laws affirm the right of self-defense and help protect the law-abiding from criminals. The Texas stand-your-ground law strikes the right balance by making the duty to retreat a requirement for those engaged in criminal activity, those who have provoked their attackers, and those with no right to be present at the location where force is used, supporters say.

Critics of stand-your-ground laws say the laws should be scaled back, that they encourage vigilante justice, empower people to shoot first and then ask questions, increase homicides, and can be used to avoid prosecution for murder or a shooting. Deadly force should be authorized only if a retreat is unavailable, critics say.

by Kellie A. Dworaczyk

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