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Implications of "Stand Your Ground" on Common Law Doctrine

There is not one issue in the legal hemisphere that has stirred up as much controversy of late as the so called "stand your ground" laws in place in many states across the country. This controversy is not without good legal rationale on both sides of the debate, making the issue even more complex than ever imagined. On one hand, we are infringing on what many view as their Constitutional right to bear arms and protect their "life" and "liberty"--and on the other hand we are dealing with the debacle following the tragic death of Trayvon Martin.

The Federal Court System, as well as every state with the exception of Louisiana, follows the traditional English Common Law system, as opposed to strict codified law. This is what defines our adversarial system of law, and sets it apart from many other places--much of the law is determined by precedent, and therefore depends heavily on decisions that came before.

The real issue now emerges when considering both the Common Law system in regards to "stand your ground". The concept of what we now know as "stand your ground"--generally considered to be the authorization to use deadly force when you have reasonable suspicion that your well-being is in imminent danger, and have no option to retreat--is now codified into law in some form in many states, although it is ironically derived from English Common Law. The "Castle Doctrine", with roots that go back thousands of years, allows for an individual to do whatever necessary without any criminal or civil recourse when defending their property and those that reside in it (derived from the old proverb, "a man's house is his castle). It was affirmed into precedent by the US Supreme Court in Beard v. United States (158 US 550 (1895)).

Fast forward to the year 2007 in the state of Texas. A retired man in charge of his community's "watch" program, Joe Horn witnessed two men burglarizing his neighbors' house. Mr. Horn called 9-1-1, as he should have, but also seemingly prepared his own shotgun. The controversy surrounding what happened on that November day continues to cause debate in the law community. Mr. Horn remained on the phone for over 8 minutes waiting for the police to respond, and told the operator he would take matters into his own hands. Though instructed on numerous occasions not to confront the men, when the police failed to respond and they were going to get away, Mr. Horn subsequently shot and killed the men. When Joe Horn's indictment did not make it past the Grand Jury, the scope of the "castle doctrine" had expanded immediately expanded on Common Law grounds.

Please understand that I am in no way taking a stance on "stand your ground" in one way or the other, but simply analyzing the questions it poses. Although the Zimmerman legal team evacuated the "stand your ground" defense in favor of "self-defense", the Florida Court still stated in their ruling that the burden to retreat was nowhere in Florida's "stand your ground" law at all.

According to an NBC News article published shortly after the Trayvon Martin debacle, they cite a study by The St. Petersburg Times that found justifiable homicide claims increased times three following the 2005 enactment of their "stand your ground" law. Again, I am not taking a stance one way or the other, but the question that needs to be posed is how much further the scope of the "stand your ground"/"castle doctrine"/"self-defense" law can be extended.

It was not many years ago that even shooting someone in the back for breaking into your house was not only frowned upon, but actually prosecutable. Through the Common Law system, the concept now accepted as "stand your ground" has evolved significantly. How far can this "appropriation" of the age old castle doctrine go, and what does this mean for law and law enforcement?

Yes, state laws are always going to vary, and these "police powers" are reserved for the states by the Constitution. The question I pose is this: where is the line drawn between law enforcement officers and vigilantes if this scope continues to broaden?

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 

 

AJ  Romano

About AJ Romano

I am a life long student who believes ardently in the Socratic method. I love to read, absorb information, and write--write--and write some more! I live to learn, teach, and for my lovely fiance.

AJ Romano

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