In Trayvon Martin Case, Police Chief Bill Lee Illegally Used 'Stand Your Ground' Law

The tragic killing of Trayvon Martin has brought to the forefront issues of race, discrimination, class warfare, and legal disparity. However, much of the discussion has come to rest on a fairly innocent law, the “Stand Your Ground Law,” or Florida Title XLVI, Chapter 776. After a close examination of the statute, I became particularly perplexed as to how this statute is possibly being applied appropriately. In essence the statute only gives a person being attacked in their home or vehicle the ability to escape prosecution. Furthermore, under section 776.041(2), the only possible part of the statute relevant to Trayvon’s killer, George Zimmerman, makes explicitly clear that the law will not protect those who are the aggressors, except in circumstances not present in the facts of the case thus far.

The real issue with this law seems to be how it is executed. While the facts are still slowly being borne out, it appears that the Sanford Police Department made the determination as to whether or not the “Stand Your Ground" law was applicable to Zimmerman. This is a complete violation of our legal system, as the only person in a position to decide rather or not a law applies to a potential criminal prior to trial is the prosecuting attorney. It appears that in Sanford, the prosecutorial duty to determine the applicability of law has been delegated to officers on the ground, a major issue in legal jurisprudence. Instead of Chief Bill Lee determining whether or not Zimmerman fell sufficiently in the realm of the statute, Norm Wolfinger, Seminole County State Attorney should have been the one to make that decision. 

I discussed this issue with a colleague of mine who trained Iraqi police as a part of his military service and who is a native Floridian. He was very clear that in his view, the officers in Sanford acted illegally by presuming that Zimmerman fell within the statute and for not holding Zimmerman until a prosecuting attorney could make that determination. 

The calls for the firing of Chief Bill Lee are very appropriate considering the illegal activity he and his officers undertook in the application of this statute. While I understand the negative attention presently pressed onto this controversial statute, it seems to be misplaced because it is not the statute itself, but the illegal application thereof that has created this travesty of injustice. 

Those who want to ensure that this does not happen again have a couple of options.

1) Floridians could call for the repeal of the “Stand Your Ground Law,” which would effectively move the self-defense claim from a pre-prosecutorial decision back into trial courts, where it is in most states as an affirmative defense. However, it should be noted that if this occurs, persons who fall squarely within the bounds of this statute, i.e., persons protecting their homes from invasion, will be forced to spend thousands of dollars to defend themselves at trial.

2) Floridians could challenge the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to ensure that only prosecuting attorneys are making the decision about which suspects fall under the statute and which do not, instead of officers as in this case.

In my view, the injustice of the murder of Trayvon Martin falls squarely on the shoulders of those who are responsible for determining when the “Stand Your Ground” law applies. Because the wrong people — Sanford Police — were allowed to make that determination, Trayvon’s killer is still free.

Photo CreditBrian Methe

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Edward Williams

Edward Williams is currently a 3L at the Georgetown University Law Center. He is a 2009 Teach For America Atlanta Corps Member. He graduated from Howard University in 2009 with a BBA in International Business and Finance with honors. He has interned at JP Morgan and Merrill Lynch in their investment banking/sales and trading divisions, and was a 2010 Teach For America Policy and Advocacy Leadership (PALI) Fellow at the National Council on Teacher Quality in Washington, DC. Edward is originally from Savannah, GA.

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