Stand Your Ground: Self-protection or vigilante justice?

MIAMI – Florida’s controversial Stand Your Ground law has come under fire recently for its role in the Trayvon Martin shooting, but a recent decision by a local judge seems to some to suggest the law is turning Florida into a modern Wild West, in which vigilante justice is the norm.

Circuit Judge Beth Bloom ruled Mar. 27 in a widely reported case that Greyston Garcia would not have to stand trial for killing Pedro Roteta, whom Garcia stabbed. According to Judge Bloom, Garcia was within his rights under Stand Your Ground law, because Roteta swung a bag of radios at Garcia, which, had it struck its intended target, could have been lethal.

Many or most would not object to the decision – if that were all there was to the story. However, the details surrounding the incident add an increased complexity.

Garcia, of Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood, did not come under attack from Roteta. Instead, he found Roteta stealing a radio from his car. When Roteta saw Garcia, he ran away, and Garcia followed him, pulling out a knife. Garcia chased Roteta for a block, cornering him, and Roteta swung his bag of radios at Garcia – the potential lethal force. It was then that Garcia stabbed him.

According to Judge Bloom, wrote the Associated Press, “[Garcia] was well within his rights to pursue the victim and demand the return of his property.” After Garcia exercised this legal right, he was threatened by Roteta, and this is when the case for lethal force arose.

Actions after the case added to the controversy. Garcia, having mortally wounded Roteta, did not call the police, but left Roteta to die, and went home for a nap. He even initially denied to a police officer that he had killed Roteta.

Chief Assistant State Attorney Kathleen Hoague told the Miami Herald she would appeal the decision, because, “We feel the judge abused her discretion.”

Public Defender Eduardo Pereira, Garcia’s attorney, countered, “Although controversial, the result in this case is due to the hard work of our office, which remains dedicated to protecting the Constitution by defending each client’s rights pursuant to the laws that apply to and protects us all.”

A number of states have “castle laws,” which allow people to use deadly force against intruders in their homes, and a few have laws that allow the use of deadly force outside the home, so long as the force is not used in defense of a situation where the Castle Law claimant provoked the threat. Under the Florida law, a person who feels threatened can use deadly force anywhere, whether or not they provoked the situation.

The idea behind the laws has a long history in the U.S., going back at least to Brown vs. the United States. In that case, the Supreme Court reversed a decision by a lower court in which the defendant had been convicted of second degree murder for shooting a man four times. The Supreme Court accepted the argument that Brown only had a pistol on him due to threats from the man he shot, Hermes. The court reversed the lower court’s decision, and Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. argued, “[D]etached  reflection cannot be demanded in the presence of an uplifted knife.”

Even defenders of the Stand Your Ground law have argued that it is being misapplied. In the Trayvon Martin case, the law’s Republican authors stated that it was not written with the intent that it could be invoked after someone claiming self-defense had chased their opponent.

Florida State Sen. Durell Peaden and State Rep. Dennis Baxley, both Republicans, authored the law, and argued that it does not apply in such circumstances. Rep. Baxley said the law does not apply to people who think “they have the authority to pursue and confront people. That is aggravating an incident right there.”

According to the Wall Street Journal, while the murder rate across the U.S. has declined drastically, “justifiable homicide” has nearly doubled from 2000 to 2010. Defenders of Stand Your Ground and castle laws in general say that they are a factor in the declining crime rate, while the laws’ opponents argue that murder rates have fallen in states and cities with or without such laws. The reason for the falling crime rate, they reason, must therefore be caused by some other social factor.

Photo: State Sen. Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, announces plans for a group that will study the controversial “stand your ground” law.   Bill Cotterell/AP