As all eyes were on the case of slain Florida teen Trayvon Martin, something else came to the nation’s attention: “stand your ground” laws.
In about 20 states, including Pennsylvania, the laws empower citizens to use deadly force in self-defense. Law enforcement officials in Florida initially wondered whether they could charge George Zimmerman in Martin’s death because of the “stand your ground” law. Though Zimmerman was charged, his lawyer used a more traditional self-defense argument in court.
The details of each law vary by state, but they are based on “castle doctrine,” a concept that arose during the days of the Roman Empire. The idea is that anyone is free to defend against an intrusion to their home, as someone’s home is considered their castle.
However, “stand your ground” laws take it a few steps further. All of them include a no-duty-to-retreat provision, meaning that if an attack occurs in the home, homeowners do not have to flee and can “stand their ground” and use deadly force to defend their home and family.
The laws in some states, Pennsylvania included, extend this right outside the home. Commonwealth residents can use deadly force as a defense wherever they are legally allowed — including public spaces and the workplace. The Florida law makes the same provision. But there is a difference.
Under Pa. law, deadly weapon must be visible
“The person that you use the deadly force against must be visibly displaying a deadly weapon,” said Robert Long, executive director of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association. “That’s one of the biggest restrictions in Pennsylvania.”
George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch captain in Florida, shot and killed unarmed 17-year-old Martin in February 2012, and maintained he had done so in self-defense. Zimmerman’s attorneys said the teen had “weaponized” a sidewalk, slamming Zimmerman’s head against the ground repeatedly.
Pennsylvania’s law takes it one step further and provides civil immunity. In other words, the law already protects person A from using force against person B if person B poses a reasonable threat to person A’s life. The state cannot bring criminal charges against person A for “standing their ground.” If person B is killed, person B’s family cannot try to bring civil charges against person A. Essentially, person B’s family has no legal recourse against person A.
Pennsylvania’s law, however, is explicit on what kind of deadly weapon must be observed before the allowable use of deadly force in self-defense — only a firearm, a replica of a firearm, or any other type of weapon that could reasonably be used to kill someone.
District attorneys throughout the state pushed for adding restrictions to the first version of the bill. The bill that passed in June 2011 includes other provisions that do not justify deadly force against law enforcement, and do not provide protection against those engaging in criminal activity.
Long said his group regarded the extension of the castle doctrine as unnecessary.
“Frankly, there weren’t a lot of cases of it in Pennsylvania before the law was changed in 2011, so our association’s position was always that the current law that we had up to 2011 was sufficient, because people were not being prosecuted for properly defending themselves,” he said. “That said, once the law was changed, we worked with the Legislature to get some of those factors included that helped make it a better law than probably any other state has.”
The changes to the law were mostly sponsored by Republican state representatives, and lobbied for by the NRA. However, one Democratic lawmaker was a vocal supporter of the bill — state Rep. Jake Wheatley of Pittsburgh.
“When I looked at the conditions of many of the neighborhoods and citizens, especially the ones residing within my district, the fact of the matter is government has failed them,” Wheatley said. “Many of them are under siege from violence. Violence from their neighbors, violence from the police officers and violence from strangers.”
“What happened in Florida would be treated very differently in Pennsylvania,” he said. “There would have to be some form of a weapon that would be seen by the victim before that victim would be able to utilize our ‘castle doctrine’ expansion.”
Few ‘stand your ground cases’ in Pa. so far
Wheatley and other supporters of the law believe that it lowers crime and saves lives.
So far, there haven’t been many “stand your ground” cases in Pennsylvania since the extended legislation was passed, however there are some examples: A Montgomery County man shot and killed a 19-year-old who pursued him with a baseball bat in his own driveway. He was not charged with any crimes.
A Somerset County man shot and killed a home intruder with a bow and arrow. He was also not charged with any crimes.
While there isn’t much data in Pennsylvania to prove whether the law is effective, nationwide trends are not promising.
Mark Hoekstra, a professor at Texas A&M University, conducted a study on “stand your ground” laws last year, comparing states that had them to states that don’t.
Hoesktra found that states with such laws had on average 8 percent more homicides.
“Instead of trying to get to safety, somebody can feel emboldened to stand their ground and escalate a confrontation that perhaps could be de-escalated or resolved in another manner,” said Shira Goodman, executive director of CeaseFirePA, a statewide anti-gun violence group. “That’s what we were always concerned about.”
Goodman added that attorneys have hardly needed to use the extended laws to defend their clients.
“We have seen prosecutors in Pennsylvania say, ‘I don’t even need to use ‘stand your ground’ here, traditional self defense is enough to clear this case,’ for example,” Goodman said.
Philly council members consider another push to repeal law
Some Philadelphia lawmakers agree with the idea that the law creates a risk of more incidents of unnecessary confrontation.
“If a person is obviously breaking in your home and you feel your life and safety is threatened, you certainly can protect that, and I think that was the case before these laws started getting passed,” Democrat Councilman-at-large Bill Greenlee said. “But if somebody’s standing on your lawn, isn’t it better just to call the police than to have a confrontation?”
Last year, Greenlee, along with Council members Curtis Jones, D-4th; and Marian Tasco, D-9th, pushed a resolution calling for state lawmakers to repeal the extended law.
“If the law was wrong, we as lawmakers can get it right,” Jones said.
Jones added that he intends to revisit the topic the next time council is in session.