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More Dead-End Demagoguery from the Democrats

The Democrats continue to try to make political hay out of the Trayvon Martin case. The Hill reports that House Democrats–all members of the Congressional Black Caucus–are proposing a package of legislative “reforms” arising out of the Martin case:

In the wake of the slaying of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin, House Democrats are drafting legislation designed to prevent similar tragedies in the future.

Actually, there are plenty of laws in every state to deter and punish murder and manslaughter, if that is, in fact, what happened in the Martin case. Such statutes are a matter of state, not federal, law. What Congressional Democrats are now doing has nothing to do with law enforcement, and everything to do with stirring up their party’s base for this year’s elections.

The resolution – sponsored by CBC Chairman Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) and Florida Democratic Reps. Corrine Brown, Alcee Hastings and Frederica Wilson, all members of the CBC – refers to Martin’s killing as a “crime,” condemns “the inconceivable fact that his killer remains free” and claims “racial bias led to the use of deadly force.”

The non-binding resolution also “condemns unfounded reliance on Stand Your Ground laws to protect actions that extend far beyond historical use of self-defense … [and] urges any State legislature considering Stand Your Ground legislation to reject such proposals.”

This is the kind of thing that gives demagoguery a bad name. Whether Martin’s killing was a “crime” remains to be seen, and will ultimately be determined by some combination of law enforcement officials, a presiding judge, and a jury. I have written that I think the evidence, as publicly known, warrants a manslaughter prosecution. But to go beyond that and declare that what happened was a “crime” is an unwarranted interference with the judicial process, as is the assertion that “racial bias led to the use of deadly force.”

The CBC resolution also condemns “stand your ground” laws like Florida’s. But there is no good reason why Congress, or any Congressional clique, should pontificate on the nuances of the law of self-defense in the 50 states.

Moreover, if you actually look at the law relating to self-defense in Florida and other states, it is hard to be critical. Here are the provisions of Florida’s criminal statutes that relate to the use of force; I have bolded the ones that may apply to the Zimmerman/Martin case as well as the section headings:

2011 Florida Statutes CHAPTER 776 JUSTIFIABLE USE OF FORCE

776.012 Use of force in defense of person.

A person is justified in using force, except deadly force, against another when and to the extent that the person reasonably believes that such conduct is necessary to defend himself or herself or another against the other’s imminent use of unlawful force. However, a person is justified in the use of deadly force and does not have a duty to retreat if:

(1) He or she reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the imminent commission of a forcible felony; or

(2) Under those circumstances permitted pursuant to s. 776.013.

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 in the process of unlawfully and forcefully entering, or had unlawfully 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.

(5) As used in this section, the term:

(a) “Dwelling” means a building or conveyance of any kind, including any attached porch, whether the building or conveyance is temporary or permanent, mobile or immobile, which has a roof over it, including a tent, and is designed to be occupied by people lodging therein at night.

(b) “Residence” means a dwelling in which a person resides either temporarily or permanently or is visiting as an invited guest.

(c) “Vehicle” means a conveyance of any kind, whether or not motorized, which is designed to transport people or property.

776.032 Immunity from criminal prosecution and civil action for justifiable use of force.

(1) A person who uses force as permitted in s. 776.012, s. 776.013, or s. 776.031 is justified in using such force and is immune from criminal prosecution and civil action for the use of such force, unless the person against whom force was used is a law enforcement officer, as defined in s. 943.10(14), who was acting 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 was a law enforcement officer. As used in this subsection, the term “criminal prosecution” includes arresting, detaining in custody, and charging or prosecuting the defendant.

(2) A law enforcement agency may use standard procedures for investigating the use of force as described in subsection (1), but the agency may not arrest the person for using force unless it determines that there is probable cause that the force that was used was unlawful.

(3) The court shall award reasonable attorney’s fees, court costs, compensation for loss of income, and all expenses incurred by the defendant in defense of any civil action brought by a plaintiff if the court finds that the defendant is immune from prosecution as provided in subsection (1).

776.041 Use of force by aggressor.The justification described in the preceding sections of this chapter is not available to a person who:

(1) Is attempting to commit, committing, or escaping after the commission of, a forcible felony; or

(2) Initially provokes the use of force against himself or herself, unless:

(a) Such force is so great that the person reasonably believes that he or she is in imminent danger of death or great bodily harm and that he or she has exhausted every reasonable means to escape such danger other than the use of force which is likely to cause death or great bodily harm to the assailant; or

(b) In good faith, the person withdraws from physical contact with the assailant and indicates clearly to the assailant that he or she desires to withdraw and terminate the use of force, but the assailant continues or resumes the use of force.

If you aren’t surprised at how complicated the law of self-defense is, you should be. Applying the principles set forth above to a brief, murky encounter on a dark street to which there are probably no eyewitnesses, and from which only one of the participants emerges alive, is obviously problematic. As a practical matter, a jury will be given voluminous instructions consistent with the above statutory provisions, and will proceed to do what it thinks is right.

But if you parse the provisions of Florida law that apply specifically to the Trayvon Martin case, it is hard to quarrel with them. Florida law says that a person is “justified in the use of deadly force and does not have a duty to retreat” if “He or she reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the imminent commission of a forcible felony.” Florida law provides further that a person who is doing nothing illegal and is in a 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.” So if George Zimmerman was walking down the street and minding his own business and was attacked by Trayvon Martin, he had a right to defend himself, including the use of deadly force if he reasonably believed it was necessary to defend himself from death or great bodily harm. Likewise, of course, for Trayvon Martin.

Florida law specifically addresses the knottiest issue posed by the Martin/Zimmerman case: what happens if someone initiates a confrontation, but that confrontation escalates to a threat of deadly force against him? Can he defend himself, or has he lost any right of self-defense by virtue of having provoked the conflict in the first place? Florida law says that self-defense is not available to anyone who “Initially provokes the use of force against himself” unless he reasonably believes that he is in “imminent danger of death or great bodily harm” and has exhausted every reasonable means of escape other than to respond with deadly force, or else he has “withdraw[n] from physical contact with the assailant and indicates clearly to the assailant that he or she desires to withdraw and terminate the use of force, but the assailant continues or resumes the use of force.”

So under Florida law, even if Zimmerman initially provoked the confrontation with Martin–note that the word “provoked” is left deliberately vague in the statute–he still can respond to Martin with deadly force if he was in imminent danger of death or great bodily harm and had exhausted every other reasonable means of escape.

One might quarrel with these or any other statutory provisions, but they constitute a fair framework within which to resolve the Martin/Zimmerman case. The Congressional Democrats who are trying to gain politically from the case have nothing better to offer. On the contrary, their complaints are entirely demagogic:

Wilson, who represents the district where Martin lived, is working on legislation to create a national commission “to study race-based injustices, health disparities and economic disparities affecting African American men and boys,” in the words of the congresswoman.

Right. That’ll help. Note that her proposal includes no effort to study, or explain the reasons for, the vastly disproportionate number of crimes committed by African-American boys and men, the elephant that is always in the room when crime and race are discussed.

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