Florida’s Castle Doctrine Law: Let's Actually Read It

Geraldo Rivera thinks a hoodie bears some responsibility. The Rev. Jesse Jackson thinks “blacks are under attack.” In a sign that day remains day, the Rev. Al Sharpton has  demanded “justice,” of a particular kind.

In a sure sign of the apocalypse, Rich Lowry thinks Al Sharpton is right. Robert VerBruggen thinks Florida law should be changed, and people should be able to protect themselves when the police can’t, but only somewhat, and sometimes. And in a sign that race-baiting, opportunistic politics is very much alive and has sunk to Mariana Trench-levels, President Obama has rhetorically adopted the deceased and let loose the Department of Justice on George Zimmerman.

Relatively little is known about the case except that George Zimmerman, a member of a local neighborhood watch group, shot the unarmed Martin once in the chest, killing him. Martin claimed self-defense, and had a bloody nose and injury on the back of his head in support. Local police did not find sufficient cause to arrest Zimmerman, and bits of potential “evidence” have made their way into the public spotlight, fueling innumerable pundits, politicians, and race-baiters.

The danger which has been overlooked is hasty, emotional law creation — or in this case, rescindment.

At stake is Florida’s so-called “stand your ground” law. There is no such standalone law. The law to which so many have referred without knowledge of the text or meaning is a common “Castle Doctrine” law in chapter 776 of the 2011 Florida Statutes. It reads (emphasis mine):

776.013 Home protection; use of deadly force; presumption of fear of death or great bodily harm.—

(1) A person is presumed to have held a reasonable fear of imminent peril of death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another when using defensive force that is intended or likely to cause death or great bodily harm to another if:

(a) The person against whom the defensive force was used was and forcibly entered, a dwelling, residence, or occupied vehicle, or if that person had removed or was attempting to remove another against that person’s will from the dwelling, residence, or occupied vehicle; and

(b) The person who uses defensive force knew or had reason to believe that an unlawful and forcible entry or unlawful and forcible act was occurring or had occurred.

(2) The presumption set forth in subsection (1) does not apply if:

(a) The person against whom the defensive force is used has the right to be in or is a lawful resident of the dwelling, residence, or vehicle, such as an owner, lessee, or titleholder, and there is not an injunction for protection from domestic violence or a written pretrial supervision order of no contact against that person; or

(b) The person or persons sought to be removed is a child or grandchild, or is otherwise in the lawful custody or under the lawful guardianship of, the person against whom the defensive force is used; or

(c) The person who uses defensive force is engaged in an unlawful activity or is using the dwelling, residence, or occupied vehicle to further an unlawful activity; or

(d) The person against whom the defensive force is used is a law enforcement officer, as defined in s. 943.10(14), who enters or attempts to enter a dwelling, residence, or vehicle in the performance of his or her official duties and the officer identified himself or herself in accordance with any applicable law or the person using force knew or reasonably should have known that the person entering or attempting to enter was a law enforcement officer.

        (3) 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 or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.

(4) A person who unlawfully and by force enters or attempts to enter a person’s dwelling, residence, or occupied vehicle is presumed to be doing so with the intent to commit an unlawful act involving force or violence.

Castle Doctrine laws are a well-reasoned and necessary response to abuse of the lawful right of self-defense by politically motivated or lazy prosecutors. In many cases, such cavalier prosecution has ruined the lives of the innocent.

As with the Florida statute, Castle Doctrine laws commonly have these features:

— When attacked in your home, car, business or other place you are legally allowed to be, you may defend yourself, including using deadly force if necessary and lawfully justified.

— Anyone breaking into your home, car, business, or other place is presumed to be up to no good of the violent and deadly kind.

— When you are attacked in this manner, you don’t have to run away and can “stand your ground” and defend yourself.

Imagine that: you don’t have to flee your home or car to defend yourself, and people who break into your home at 3:00 a.m. are presumed to intend you harm. Who could possibly object to that? As it turns out, a great many people do, as Castle Doctrine laws are not yet universal. One of the primary objections is that they give carte blanche to murder and later claim self-defense.

But a closer examination of the Florida law reveals no such thing. At best, 766.013(3) simply makes it hard — not impossible — for prosecutors to indict people defending their own lives or the lives of others.

In the Martin case, a proper police investigation — which may well have been completed — would have asked and answered these primary questions:

— Did Zimmerman have reasonable grounds to believe that Martin might have been up to no good?

— Was Zimmerman breaking the law in watching and pursuing Martin (a police dispatcher’s advice is not the law)?

— Did Zimmerman reasonably believe he was in danger of great bodily harm or death when he fired the shot that killed Martin?

— Was Martin committing a forcible felony and did Zimmerman understand that?

There are, of course, many other questions and matters of evidence, credibility, and motive to consider. If left to the local authorities, the current outcome of the case — that there was insufficient evidence to charge Zimmerman with a crime — might be the right outcome, and the case would never have come to the attention of the nation, as virtually all similar cases do not.

Ironically, Obama has provided Zimmerman’s possible defense with a compelling issue: since the president of the United States has injected himself into (yet another) case, can Zimmerman, if charged, receive a fair trial anywhere in America?

The case is in doubt, but the legitimacy of Florida’s Castle Doctrine is not. Repealing or changing it is not sensible.

Also see: Video: Zimmerman Friend, a Former CNN Anchor, Calls for Patience

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