The Trayvon Martin case now has legal minds wondering whether George Zimmerman would have been arrested if he had shot 17-year-old Martin in Pennsylvania. And the answer seems to be yes.
Florida’s Stand Your Ground law — which allows law-abiding citizens to claim self-defense if they believe they are in great danger — is one of the factors fueling the controversy surrounding Martin’s death.
Martin’s shooter, Zimmerman, 28, has not been arrested for the Feb. 26 shooting. Many blame Florida’s law, which allowed Zimmerman to claim self-defense even though Martin was unarmed and was not trespassing on Zimmerman’s property.
Florida’s law allows law-abiding citizens to use deadly force when they reasonably believe it’s necessary to prevent imminent death or great physical harm.
They do not have a duty to retreat, meaning they do not have to back off from the source of threat even when it is reasonable to do so. In addition, they can claim self-defense if they are in a space where they are allowed to be — public and most private places.
Pennsylvania, along with several other states including New Jersey and Nevada, has a similar law known as the Castle Doctrine. It states that law-abiding citizens have the right to defend themselves with deadly force only inside their homes or occupied vehicles, with some exceptions. Drexel University criminal law and procedure professor Donald Tibbs said one of the issues he has with the Florida statute is that it extends the Castle Doctrine to the public space.
The duty to retreat is lifted under the Castle Doctrine when the actor has a right to be in the place where he was attacked, when he believes deadly force is immediately necessary to prevent death, serious bodily injury, kidnapping, rape or theft and when the attacker displays a weapon that is readily or apparently capable of lethal use.
The last requirement is the primary reason Tibbs believes Zimmerman would have been arrested if the shooting had occurred in Pennsylvania. Martin was completely unarmed, so Zimmerman could not have claimed self-defense under the Castle Doctrine, Tibbs said.
A member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, Scott Perry, who initially introduced the Castle Doctrine bill in Pennsylvania, seconded that opinion. In an April 2 statement he wrote, “The law in Pennsylvania is very clear. An ironclad provision within the law says that … the potential assailant MUST be displaying a firearm or any other weapon readily capable of lethal use.”
He continued, “To be clear, the Florida law does NOT contain that provision. It is my belief that, if this Martin scenario had taken place in Pennsylvania, George Zimmerman would have been taken into custody.”
In 2011, Pennsylvania broadened the scope of situations that would allow for self defense by deadly force. The Castle Doctrine was ratified that year by Governor Tom Corbett, after it was vetoed by then-Governor Ed Rendell in 2010.
Most states have some version of a Castle Doctrine law or a Stand Your Ground law.
The name of law originates from the idea that the home is a man’s castle. Similarly, “stand your ground” refers to not having to retreat in the face of danger.
Tibbs added that he believes the Castle Doctrine was drafted in such a way that embodies the intentions of most stand your ground laws. He has many concerns with these type of laws, believing that there should be more situations where citizens must retreat.
State Representative Babette Josephs (D-Philadelphia) is not a fan of stand your ground laws. “Gun violence weakens our country and takes innocent lives,” she said in a March 30 The Times Herald article. Stand your ground laws are “hazardous to everyone’s health,” she added.
Matthew Mangino, former Lawrence County district attorney, is currently on the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole. In a column for The Pennsylvania Law Weekly he called the law “anything but deliberative and thoughtful.”
“We lament the killer who is executed after trial and years of review, yet we empower a single individual to make a split second decision — suspicion, a threat, fear — ‘bang!’ There is no investigation, no trial, and no appeal. In that split second, the individual is judge, jury and executioner,” he wrote.
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