Following the acquittal of George Zimmerman as well as protests across America there has been a great deal of comment in the British media about the Florida law of self-defence.
Some of the facts are reasonably clear. Mr Zimmerman became suspicious of Trayvon Martin a 17 year old black boy who was walking through the gated community where Mr Zimmerman acted as a Neighbourhood Watch volunteer. He assumed – perhaps on racial grounds – that Martin was “up to no good.” In this country the typical Neighbourhood Watch volunteer might at this point have discretely tweaked the net curtain back into position before making a cup of tea and dialling 999. But they favour a more direct approach in Florida. Mr Zimmerman picked up his legally owned Kel-Tec PF9 semi-automatic pistol, got out of his car and followed Trayvon through the gated streets. Exactly what happened next is unclear but there was a fight – who started it, and why, may never be satisfactorily resolved – but Zimmerman was to say that he feared for his own safety and as a result shot Trayvon dead.
Since the verdict much criticism has been directed at what has been called the law of “stand your ground.”
It has been argued that such a law is absurd and that it gives you a licence to shoot anyone who is standing in your way. According to Justin Webb in an otherwise fascinating article in Tuesday’s Times:
“… the “stand your ground” rules applied — and apply today — to all Floridians of any ethnicity. You can shoot someone who threatens you. Period, as the Americans say.”
It would be an absurd law if that is what it said, but it isn’t and it doesn’t. In fact the Florida law of self-defence does not promote vigilante killing, is far from absurd and is if anything rather stricter to defendants than the equivalent English law.
The direction given by the judge to the Zimmerman jury on the point was admirably clear:
If George Zimmerman was not engaged in an unlawful activity and was attacked in any place where he had a right to be, he had no duty to retreat and had the right to stand his ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he reasonably believed that it was necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.
That is not quite the same as saying “you can shoot someone who threatens you.”
Although the actual phrase “stand your ground” has not worked its way into English law, the principle that you do not need to retreat in the face of perceived aggression is well established. It comes in handy in many a Saturday night brawl. As the criminal lawyers’ bible Archbold puts it:
“The old rule of law that a man attacked must retreat as far as he can has disappeared. Whether the accused did retreat is only one element for the jury to consider on whether the force used was reasonably necessary.”
Florida law draws a legal distinction between a defendant being in a place “where he had the right to be” and a defendant who is a trespasser, with less indulgence being shown to the trespasser. English law makes no such legal distinction, leaving it up to the jury to decide on all the circumstances whether the force used was reasonable. Thus a trespasser in England can lawfully risk being a little more violent than a Florida one. He is also less likely to be shot.
English law is also more indulgent to criminals who defend themselves when they are attacked, as it were, in flagrante delicto. Under Florida law the jury had to be satisfied that Mr Zimmerman was not engaged in an “unlawful activity”. Under English law even a criminal engaged upon a crime is entitled to use “reasonable force” to defend himself from an unlawful attack.
In both jurisdictions the jury are told that it is for the prosecution to prove that the defendant was not acting in self-defence, and any reasonable doubt is to be resolved in favour of the accused. In Mr Zimmerman’s case it seems that the jury wrestled long and hard with the law before deciding that they simply could not be sure.
The laws of self-defence in both jurisdictions are in fact very similar. However, had Mr Zimmerman been tried in England he probably would not have had a chance. In Florida it is perfectly lawful to carry a firearm: in England he would have faced a minimum sentence of 5 years simply for possessing the gun. And although self-defence is notoriously difficult for the prosecution to disprove I would be astonished if any English jury would accept for a moment that he was acting in lawful self-defence by following and shooting an unarmed man.
In Florida far from being jailed for possession of a firearm, Mr Zimmerman will have his gun returned to him on Sunday. We must hope that he does not feel the need to use it again soon.
If there is a wider lesson to be learnt from the Zimmerman case it is that there is nothing wrong with the Florida law of self-defence. On the other hand there is a great deal wrong with gun laws that allow armed men lawfully to stalk the streets, fearful that anyone they meet will be similarly armed. Unfortunately the chances that that lesson will be learned by those who still don’t get it seem to be just about nil.
(This article first appeared in The Times on July 18th 2013)