Know facts about 'stand your ground' laws before facing decision, legal experts say

 

Know the facts about “stand your ground” legislation before you find yourself in a situation where you must make a quick life-or-death decision, legal experts say.

The self-defense law continues to make news, most recently in South Carolina, where the state Supreme Court ruled last week that a person who kills or wounds another and claims “stand your ground” immunity cannot delay his trial by an appeal.

Until the ruling, a person who was denied immunity by a judge could appeal before undergoing trial. Now, any appeals will have to come after a defendant undergoes trial and is found guilty.

In Georgia and South Carolina, “stand your ground” legislation mirrors that of Florida, where neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman was acquitted of wrongdoing in the death of Trayvon Martin. The Zimmerman trial captured the nation’s attention and called into question “stand your ground” laws, although Zimmerman’s attorneys did not use the Florida statute to defend him.

Under “stand your ground” laws, a person who is threatened with serious force, even in a public place, can retaliate with force of his own, said University of Georgia School of Law professor Ronald Carlson.

In states where “stand your ground” does not exist, a person threatened by force has an obligation to retreat and can strike back only if the threat continues.

The “castle doctrine” grants a person immunity for defending himself inside his home.

Carlson said “stand your ground applies” to a person who “must be reasonably in fear of death or grave bodily harm” when using force in retaliation. Making that assessment can come under scrutiny, and circumstances are often difficult to prove in court.

“It cannot be casually employed,” Carlson said.

Kenneth Gaines, an associate professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law, said uses of force under threat occur suddenly without time for one to reflect
before retaliating.

“The safest thing to do is to make sure they reasonably believe deadly force is necessary in the first place,” Gaines said. “But, at what point does that happen?”

Immunity hearings, when the person invoking “stand your ground” goes before a judge before a trial, pose significant procedural problems, Gaines said.

“The defendant is forced to lay out the case beforehand. If it goes against them, then they have to go to trial and appeal after that,” he said.

A judge in Georgia also can rule before a trial in an immunity hearing.

Critics of “stand your ground” laws, which exist in 22 states, are creating pressure to revisit legislation. Those who argue against the effectiveness of the laws say they create more conflict, violence and use of deadly force, Carlson said.

Still, supporters of “stand your ground” laws say they deter crime and permit a person to avoid being robbed, mugged or assaulted, he said.

Carlson said that there will be strong efforts in Georgia to reconsider the legislation, which was enacted in 2006 but that the majority opinion of the state Legislature will likely be not to change the law.

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