Stand Your Ground laws have made a return trip to the news cycle following a recent incident in Florida. And the social discourse surrounding them is predictably hyperbolic.
On one side are those who see them as nothing but a green light for gun nuts to mow down innocent people. While on the other side are those who defend them as a necessary right in a world gone wrong.
But overheated public discourse aside one thing seems obvious: invoking the right to stand one’s ground might not be the smartest course of action. Below are four reasons why.
1. States Are Not Eager to Stand Behind Stand Your Ground Laws
Even in states like Florida that have robust Stand Your Ground laws on the books you may discover that officialdom is not eager to get behind you should you invoke your right. There are many potential reasons for this, including:
- Law enforcement does not want to encourage what they consider a vigilante culture.
- Politicians always have their finger to the wind of public opinion and are typically averse to compromising their chances for re-election.
- Such laws are likely to be abused by certain fringe elements.
In the recent Florida case I mentioned at the outset there was no doubt the shooter (later identified as Michael Drejka) had been forcibly pushed to the ground by a man named Markeis McGlockton. But as soon as Drejka pulled his weapon McGlockton can be seen in surveillance video backing off. Yet Drejka shot him in the chest anyway and McGlockton later died.
Drejka invoked his right under Florida law to stand his ground and was initially allowed to return home with no charges brought against him. However, public outcry led to a re-evaluation of the case and the State Attorney wound up charging Drejka with manslaughter.
Right or wrong this is just one of several high profile cases where states have shown their reluctance to get behind a Stand Your Ground defense.
2. Your State May Not be a Stand Your Ground State
Stand Your Ground laws are based loosely on the castle doctrine of English common law which states that a person is under no obligation to retreat if threatened on their own property. The castle doctrine, however, does not extend to the public domain. In most states, if accosted or otherwise threatened in a public place a person is obliged to try and retreat before invoking their right to self-defense, including deadly force.
In many cases, however, people confuse the widely recognized and confrontation-averse castle doctrine with the more aggressive Stand Your Ground doctrine. They think that because their state recognizes the castle doctrine, that means they can stand their ground if assaulted in a public place.
The bottom line is you need to be sure you reside in a Stand Your Ground state before you decide to exercise your right to do so, or you could wind up facing a lengthy prison term.
3. Stand Your Ground Laws Are Not Cut and Dry
Most Stand Your Ground laws use a few basic questions to determine if the person was justified in invoking this right. While wording tends to differ from state to state those questions essentially come down to:
- Did the defendant have a right to be on the scene?
- Were they engaged in lawful activity at the scene?
- Did he or she have a reasonable fear of suffering great bodily harm or even death?
While those seem like three perfectly reasonable and clear questions they are actually anything but, especially question three.
Since no one can travel into the mind of another trying to determine if someone is being honest when they say they felt their life was in danger is a problematic process at best. But even questions 1 and 2 are not cut and dry.
Suppose that the defendant wasn’t actually patronizing the establishment where a shooting took place? Can they then claim to have had a legitimate right to be there?
And what if a person was smoking a joint when they were assaulted? Even if marijuana use is legal in a particular state it’s still illegal at the federal level. So can the person claim to have been engaged in “lawful activity”?
4. It Might be Better to Just Claim Self Defense
In some cases invoking your right to Stand Your Ground may not be the best defense strategy either (although that’s between you and your attorney to decide), since the law already recognizes the right to self-defense when it appears there is a reasonable fear of great bodily harm or death.
The difference between a standard self-defense claim and a Stand Your Ground claim are subtle but real:
- In a standard self-defense case the person had to have made an effort to get away if the possibility existed for them to do so. With Stand Your Ground they don’t.
- If it is determined that a person was justified in standing their ground there will be no charges, no trial and no possibility of civil liability. With standard self-defense you’ll need to prove your case in court.
That said, your attorney might still decide it’s better to forego a Stand Your Ground claim and pursue a simple claim of self-defense. Especially if there is evidence to suggest you were in genuine peril.
That’s because with a standard self-defense claim you don’t have to be accurate in your threat assessment. All you have to demonstrate is that it was reasonable to assume the threat of grave bodily harm or death existed. Whether it actually did or not.
With Stand Your Ground the threat has to be real and imminent. As such, if you choose the Stand Your Ground path even the slightest evidence that you overreacted can be used to discredit your claim and send the matter to court.