How Florida Could Have Saved Trayvon Martin's Life in 2005


Since Trayvon Martin was shot a few weeks ago, I have been unable to shake the feeling that we may be missing the forest for the trees. The media have focused on everything from Martin’s pictures of his removable “grill,” to the obsession with girls his tweets seem to reveal. People have been obsessed with the race issue. Is George Zimmerman, (the shooter,) white, or Hispanic? Even President Obama got into the fray when he commented: “If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon.”

The truth is none of this may even matter.

I think it would be nice if people realized, as Leonard Pitts argued in the Miami Herald not too long ago, that the term “Hispanic” refers to an ethnicity and that, in fact, many Hispanics identify as white. I also think it would be nice if people realized that teenagers all over the world, not just Martin, take inappropriate pictures, and make inappropriate comments, and post them online for the world to see.

But more importantly, it would be nice if people paid attention to what their government was doing. Although some media attention has been placed on Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law since the shooting, people should be doing more than reading news stories about this law.

A 2005 Senate staff analysis on Senate Bill 436, which eventually became the law now at issue, clearly stated that under the new law, “a person [would] no longer have any duty to retreat, unless the person [was] not in a place where he or she [was] lawfully entitled to be.” By the Florida Senate’s own admission, their new law would, “eliminate the common law duty to retreat.”

A common law system basically works as follows: First, when a court is presented with a case of “first impression,” with issues and fact patterns new to it, the court has to decide how the applicable law should be applied to the facts of that case. Then, when another case with similar facts comes before the court, the court looks at the previous decision for guidance. Over time, cases upon cases interpret and apply a particular law in the same way, and a common law principle is created. The point of a common law system is to decide similar cases in a similar fashion in the interest of fairness.

Florida legislators did not do anything illegal when they wrote the “Stand Your Ground” law, but they did erase years of case law stating that a person, not in her home, had a duty to retreat when endangered before resorting to deadly force. Does the fact that it was not illegal mean that what they did was right?

Before the “Stand Your Ground” law, Floridians had a right to self-defense in public spaces as long as the force they used to defend themselves did not outweigh the force used by the aggressor. But since 2005, to misquote the popular comedy 30 Minutes or Less, you can bring a bomb to a gun fight in Florida. Apparently, you can even go looking for the fight.

At least this is what seems to be understood from a Miami Judge’s recent decision to dismiss charges of second-degree murder against a man who chased a suspected car-radio thief. The thief, armed only with a bag of stolen car radios and a closed pocketknife buried in his pocket, was stabbed to death by his pursuer.

It’s telling that the National Rifle Association, a strong lobbying power in Florida, supported the law, which would end up sanctioning the use of guns in more situations by sanctioning the use of deadly force in more situations.

I would consider this while wondering if regular citizens, such as Martin’s parents, had their voices heard, or knew they should make their voices heard when this law was just a bill.

It’s our responsibility to tell our elected legislators what we think while they’re creating our laws, just as much, or perhaps more so, than it is to criticize them after the fact when we failed to make our opinions known.

Perhaps even more worrisome than the law’s abrogation of the duty to retreat is that the legislature chose to support it by enacting another law titled “Immunity from criminal prosecution and civil actions for justifiable use of force.” Under this law, police officers are forbidden from arresting people who claim they were “standing their ground” without probable cause to believe use of deadly force was unlawful. A somewhat difficult feat for police officers given that often the only witness in these situations are the people who used deadly force, and it is unlikely they will admit to homicides when they can claim self-defense.

The fact of the matter is that Martin is dead and Zimmerman is now charged with second degree murder. We should all do more than read about Martin’s online persona, and about whether Zimmerman is a white Hispanic. Perhaps it’s time we start paying more attention to this “Stand Your Ground” law and whether it should be changed, lest the forest becomes an increasingly dangerous place.