2012-05-11 / Columnists

Sullivan’s Court

Commentary By Keith Sullivan

Dear Sullivan’s Court, There has been so much media coverage of this Florida Zimmerman case the past month. Can you clarify this “Stand Your Ground” law and explain the self-defense laws as they are in New York State? Thanks. – Daniel O.

The “Stand Your Ground” portion of the Florida self-defense statute was lobbied for by the National Rifle Association. Some reports indicate that the NRA actually drafted the model language that ultimately became the legal statute in 2005. The Florida law served as a model for over 30 other states that have drafted similar laws. The Stand Your Ground portion of the statute does away with an earlier requirement that a person attacked in a public place must retreat if possible before utilizing deadly force. Now, with the amended law, that same person, in the law’s words, “has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force.” The law also forbids the arrest, detention or prosecution of the people covered by the law, and it prohibits civil suits against them.

Prior to 2005, in all 50 states, the law on the use of deadly force for civilians was pretty simple. If you found yourself in a situation where you felt threatened with deadly force but could safely retreat, you had the duty to do so. (A police officer does not have the duty to retreat).

Many County Sheriff’s Offices and Police Chiefs in Florida and other states lobbied the legislature not to pass this very controversial law on the belief that it would give citizens unfettered power and right to kill others in public if they felt threatened. That debate has now been reignited. Florida this month commissioned a 19-person panel to review the law and its effectiveness.

The New York self-defense law, called justification, while it embodies the American common law is now in a minority of states. It says that a person may use force when and to the extent he “reasonably believes” it is necessary to defend himself . . . from what he reasonably believes to be the use or imminent use of deadly force by another person. The defense usually does not apply when the person using force was the aggressor.

Deadly physical force is prohibited unless the person reasonably believes that the other is using or is about to use deadly force and there is no safe ability to escape the danger.

The phrase “reasonably believes” is always a source of controversy. The courts have determined that a finding of reasonableness must be based on the circumstances facing a defendant or his situation.

These circumstances may include knowledge the defendant had about the other, the physical attributes of all people involved, and any prior experiences.

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