There is another case involving a possible “Stand Your Ground” defense in the headlines this week. The latest case comes out of Georgia where three teens were shot and killed by a home owner. Stand Your Ground laws have been part of the national consciousness since George Zimmerman shot Trayvon Martin, even though Zimmerman did not ultimately rely on the Florida SYG law. The initial account seems to be a classic case for the common law rule that you are not required to retreat in exercising the privilege of self-defense.
Reports indicate that three teens approached the home wearing masks and attempted to rob three people in the front yard. One of the teens reportedly had a handgun and fired shots before one of the home owners returned fire — hitting all three teens. One died immediately and two died at the hospital.
Many people believe that SYG was used as a defense by Zimmerman. In fact, the defense elected to present a traditional case of self-defense. SYG was waived pre-trial by the defense, which did not seek immunity under the law. As the Florida Supreme Court has stated, it is the immunity provision is generally referenced as the Stand Your Ground law. Dennis v. State, 51 So. 3d 456 (2010) (discussing “immunity from criminal prosecution pursuant to section 776.032, Florida Statutes (2006), commonly known as the ‘Stand Your Ground” statute.’”) The point of the law was to avoid the need for a criminal or civil trial entirely due to the immunity grant. Id. (“While Florida law has long recognized that a defendant may argue as an affirmative defense at trial that his or her use of force was legally justified, section 776.032 contemplates that a defendant who establishes entitlement to the statutory immunity will not be subjected to trial.”).
However, the common law does not impose a duty to retreat. It preexisted the SYG law in most states. If it didn’t, hundreds of thousands of cases of self-defense would have had different results after people defended themselves rather than flee. Indeed, this is a point that I often made in opposing these laws: you already have the right to defend yourself and not to retreat.
Georgia has codified the SYG defense.
O.C.G.A. 16-3-21 states that:
(a) A person is justified in threatening or using force against another when and to the extent that he or she reasonably believes that such threat or force is necessary to defend himself or herself or a third person against such other ́s imminent use of unlawful force; however, except as provided in Code Section 16-3-23, a person is justified in using force which is intended or likely to cause death or great bodily harm only if he or she reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent death or great bodily injury to himself or herself or a third person or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.
You are unable to use this defense if you are the aggressor, but early accounts suggest that the use of lethal force followed an attempted armed robbery and the discharge of a weapon by the robbers. If those facts withstand scrutiny, there would be a viable SYG defense under either the common law or the statute.