Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Is California a "Stand Your Ground" State?

Disclaimer: I am licensed to practice law in California, not Florida.  This blog post will specifically discuss California's approach to self-defense laws.  

Update: Stevie Wonder recently told an audience in Quebec that he would boycott any "stand your ground" states.  Mr. Wonder currently lives in Woodland Hills, CA.  Somebody, please read this to Stevie.  

Since the verdict in the George Zimmerman case was announced last Saturday, "stand your ground" laws have been the subject of a lot of discussion in the news media. It should be noted parenthetically that "stand your ground" laws had absolutely nothing to do with the Zimmerman verdict -- George Zimmerman did NOT assert a "stand your ground" defense.  The phrase "stand your ground" never even arose during the trial, except when prosecutors displayed a video in which Zimmerman denied having any knowledge of such laws.  So, while it should be understood that SYG played exactly zero role in Zimmerman's acquittal, those laws still seem to be generating a lot of controversy.  Perfect blog fodder.

To understand SYG laws, you first have to understand the traditional "common law" approach to self-defense.  Under the historical British rules, the rules from which our system evolved, a person was only justified in using deadly force against an attacker if such force was truly a last resort.  If a person came under attack in a public place, he had a "duty to retreat" -- that is, he was expected to run from his attacker.  Force was only permissible in self-defense if retreating was not a viable option.  There was a major exception to this rule, known as the "Castle Doctrine".  The Castle Doctrine said that a person had no duty to retreat if he was attacked within his own home or place of business.

The trend in many modern jurisdictions, including California, has been away from the very narrow, traditional rules of self-defense.  Why should an innocent person be required to flee from a violent criminal?  If I haven't done anything wrong, I should have a right to defend myself against an attacker wherever that attack might occur.  In fact, that's exactly what the law says in California.  A person who is assaulted in California has no duty to retreat.  He may defend himself if he believes, and a reasonable person in his position would believe, that force is necessary to protect himself from an imminent threat.  We even go one step further -- the law in California says that a person who is attacked may even pursue his assailant if necessary.  CALJIC 5.50 reads:

A person threatened with an attack that justifies the exercise of the right of self-defense need not retreat.  In the exercise of his right of self-defense a person may stand his ground and defend himself by the use of all force and means which would appear to be necessary to a reasonable person in a similar situation and with similar knowledge; and a person may pursue his assailant until he has secured himself from danger if that course likewise appears reasonably necessary. This law applies even though the assailed person might more easily have gained safety by flight or by withdrawing from the scene.  

It should be obvious that SYG laws were simply irrelevant to the Zimmerman defense.  According to Zimmerman, he exited his vehicle because he lost sight of a suspicious person in his neighborhood.  At the time that he exited the car, Zimmerman had no reason to feel threatened. After walking some distance and searching for the suspicious teenager in the hooded sweatshirt, Zimmerman gave up and began walking back towards his waiting vehicle.  Martin allegedly surprised Zimmerman by punching him in the face, knocking him to the ground and beating his head against the concrete.  Zimmerman did not have an opportunity to flee once the threat began, therefore there should be no question about the propriety of Zimmerman "standing his ground". Regardless of whether or not you believe Zimmerman's story, it must be recognized that the defense simply did not rely on a "stand your ground" argument.  As noted above, the fact that Zimmerman initially exited his vehicle is irrelevant because Zimmerman did not believe that he was facing an imminent threat at the time that he did so.

The most famous "stand your ground" case in California involved a young man named Calvin Broadus, better known as Snoop Dogg.  On August 25, 1993, Snoop and his bodyguard, McKinley Lee were in a car near Woodbine Park in Los Angeles.  Snoop was driving the vehicle and Lee was riding in the passenger seat.  The men were confronted by 20 year-old Phillip Woldemariam, who was alleged to be a member of a Long Beach street gang called the "By Yerself Hustlers". Woldemariam flashed gang signs and insults ensued.  Snoop and Lee then pursued Woldemariam into the park, where Lee shot and killed the man.  Both Snoop and Lee were charged with murder. Both were found "not guilty".  The jury believed that Snoop and Lee acted in self-defense, even though they clearly had an opportunity to avoid the confrontation by fleeing (or simply by NOT pursuing Woldemariam).

Remember the outrage when Snoop was acquitted for pursuing and murdering a young, black man?  Me neither.

If you or a loved one has questions about self-defense in Orange County, Los Angeles, Riverside or San Bernardino, call our office for a free attorney consultation.  (714) 449-3335.  Ask for John.

Thanks for reading.

Fullerton Self-Defense Lawyer