Prior to delving into the topic, I’ll begin with full disclosure: I am generally in favor of “castle doctrine”. Disclosure aside, let’s get into the analysis of Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law and determine whether these types of laws are needed to make communities safer.
Modern castle doctrine has its roots in English common law, where a man’s home was deemed his castle and as such, men had the right to defend themselves and the home’s inhabitants from harm, whereas outside of the home, an individual had a duty to retreat and only defend themselves should retreat not be possible (Catalfamo, 2007; Levin, 2010). The duty to retreat first was based on the notion that the state monopolized the power to commit violence, as a measure to preserve civil society and the power of the state (Levin, 2010). The concepts of both the right to self-defense in the home, and the duty to retreat elsewhere has largely been codified into law throughout the United States with differing implementation and interpretation on a state by state basis, as the judiciary grappled with issues of necessity, commensurate force, what constitutes a castle, and other complex issues of self-defense law (Levin, 2010).
In 2005, Florida passed the controversial “Stand Your Ground” law that fundamentally altered Florida self-defense law in several ways by a) allowing an individual to use deadly force when the individual reasonably believes that deadly force is necessary to protect himself or others from harm, b) extending castle doctrine beyond the home or vehicle, to any place a person has a right to be, c) effectively removing the duty to retreat, d) allowing for deadly force to be used to protect property in addition to life, and e) holding individuals harmless and immune from civil suits or criminal prosecution when the conditions of the statute have been met (Weaver, 2008).
According to Weaver (2008), the original intention of the law was to improve victim’s rights and allow law-abiding citizens to defend themselves and others from criminals. However, Florida State Attorney Glenn Hess worries that “there was a major disconnect between the laudable purpose when the Legislature tried to pass the law and the reality on the street” (Calhoun, 2010, p. 1).
Weaver (2008) identifies a number of problematic areas of the “Stand Your Ground” law, including opposition by prosecutors and law enforcement who believe that the law a) encourages people to stand their ground rather than simply walk away, b) provides legal protection to criminals who are more likely to commit violent acts, c) provides citizens with greater rights than law enforcement in the application of deadly force, and finally, d) is ultimately unnecessary given there was little indication that victims were being prosecuted unfairly with the earlier self-defense laws. In fact, there are now many documented examples of the kinds of concerns expressed by law enforcement professionals in both the academic literature and the popular press, as criminals are shielded by the law, while domestic disputes and civil altercations turn deadly (Calhoun, 2010; Levin, 2010; Montgomery & Jenkins, 2010; Weaver, 2008).
Indeed, Montgomery and Jenkins (2010) found that justifiable homicides have more than doubled since the law was enacted. However, supporters of the law are likely to point out that violent crime in Florida is declining and that the law acts as a criminal deterrent. According to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (2012), violent crime as decreased from 702 crimes per 100,000 people in 2006, to only 542 crimes per 100,000 in 2010. Unfortunately, while the statistics provide context for the discussion, a cause and effect relationship cannot be inferred, lacking the ability to control for other variables. Perhaps the decline in violent crime is simply part of the general decline since the 1970s, that Brym and Lie (2007) suggest is a result of more police on the streets, an aging population, and economic prosperity. And while the statistical picture of the law’s effect is not clear, the number and types of reported incidents should cause Florida communities to consider whether the “Stand Your Ground” law is making Floridians safer, whether the law should be reconsidered, or finally, whether the law requires amendments to deal with critic’s concerns.
As a citizen living in Colorado considering whether our communities require a version of the “Stand Your Ground” law, I would argue that Florida’s blueprint was fundamentally flawed insofar as the law sanctions deadly force beyond what may be reasonably necessary in a given situation, encourages escalation rather than common sense, and makes it more difficult for law enforcement to deter violent crime. Rather, I would prefer that Colorado keep the boundaries of its castle doctrine where it belongs, at the doorstep. The duty to retreat outside of the home makes great sense, and in most cases, can prevent escalation. Should a situation outside of the home require the use of deadly force, existing Colorado law allows for self-defense, and includes the scrutiny of law enforcement to assure the situation required the use of force, deadly or otherwise. In short, our communities won’t be made any safer with the enactment of “Stand Your Ground” legislation, and indeed, could be made measurably less safe as a result.
Brym, R. J., & Lie, J. (2007). Sociology : your compass for a new world (Brief ed.). Belmont, CA: Thomson/Wadsworth.
Calhoun, S. B. (2010, May 31, 2010). News analysis: Officials explore gray of stand your ground. Panama City News Herald Retrieved January 23, 2012, from http://www.newsherald.com/articles/news-84258-analysis-officials.html
Catalfamo, C. (2007). Stand your ground: Florida’s castle doctrine for the twenty-first century. Rutgers Journal of Law & Public Policy, 4(3), 504-545.
Florida Department of Law Enforcement. (2012). Total Violent Crime for Florida, 1989-2010. Tallahassee, Florida: Florida Statistical Analysis Center Retrieved from http://www.fdle.state.fl.us/Content/getdoc/d0209ed2-68c4-4878-b8ca-c3129409bf3a/1989_fwd_violent.aspx.
Levin, B. (2010). A defensible defense? Reexamining castle doctrine statutes. Harvard Law School Journal on Legislation, 47(2), 523-553.
Montgomery, B., & Jenkins, C. (2010, October 17, 2010). Five years since Florida enacted “stand-your-ground” law, justifiable homicides are up, Tampa Bay Times. Retrieved from http://www.tampabay.com/news/publicsafety/crime/article1128317.ece
Weaver, Z. L. (2008). Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law: The actual effects and the need for clarification. Miami Law Review, 63(1), 395-430.