August 31, 2014

ABA task force report indicates failure of Stand Your Ground laws

After nearly 10 years of Stand Your Ground laws, the data on the controversial self-defense law is in and the results are not very impressive. Stand Your Ground laws increase homicides, have no deterrent on serious crimes, result in racial disparities in the criminal justice system and impede law enforcement.

Those were some of the finding from a yearlong national study by the American Bar Association National Task Force on Stand Your Ground Laws, which released its preliminary report during a session on Friday at the Annual Meeting in Boston.

Since the nation’s first Stand Your Ground legislation was signed into law by then Florida Gov. Jeb Bush in 2005, a total of 33 states now have similar laws. Stand Your Ground has changed the legal definition of self-defense because it eliminates the duty to retreat rule. It has been part of the public debate since the February 2012 fatal shooting of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman, who was found not guilty a year later in a highly publicized trial.

The task force was co-chaired by Leigh-Ann A. Buchanan, a business litigation attorney at the firm of Berger Singerman LLP, and Jack B. Middleton, senior member of the litigation department at McLane, Graf, Raulerson & Middleton. The study— which included five regional hearings in Dallas, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Miami — revealed five key findings and resulted in a number of recommendations. The findings were:

  • Stand Your Ground states experienced an increase in homicides.
  • Multiple states have attempted to repeal or amend Stand Your Ground laws.
  • The law’s application is unpredictable, uneven and results in racial disparities.
  • A person’s right to self-defense was sufficiently protected prior to Stand Your Ground.
  • Victims’ rights are undermined in states with statutory immunity from criminal prosecution and civil suit related to Stand Your Ground cases.

Among the report’s 11 recommendations were that states repeal or do not enact Stand Your Ground laws, training for law enforcement agencies on best practices for investigating Stand Your Ground cases, and that states with statutory immunity provisions related to Stand Your Ground modify them to eliminate civil immunity provisions.  

One of the most telling failures of the Stand Your Ground laws for panelist and task force member David A. Harris, a professor of law at the University of Pittsburgh, is that the law has had the opposite effect of what it was intended to be.

“The Stand Your Ground law was sold on the basis that it would lower serious crime and, in particular, it would lower homicide rates. Those were the two promises,” Harris said. Citing two separate university studies done at Texas A&M and Georgia Tech with data collected from 2000-2010, it did not lower serious crime and homicide rates increased in both studies.

“In the Texas A&M study homicide rates increased by 8 percent,” Harris said. “If your city went up 8 percent in murders do you think there would be a little excitement down at city hall? Yeah, I think so.”

Task force member and panelist, Joe Vince, who has 30 years of law enforcement at both the federal and state ranks, said prosecutors and police chiefs across the country have been vigorously opposed to the laws.

“Instead of encouraging peaceful resolution through the rule of law, Stand Your Ground promotes confrontation by force,’’ said Vince. “Encouraging untrained citizens to take aggressive deadly force action can lead to more social harm, not less.’’

Stand Your Ground, panelist Steven Jansen said, adds confusion for law enforcement and prosecutors as to what charges are justifiable and increases the burden on prosecutors to “prove beyond a reasonable doubt that self-defense did not occur.’’

“I would argue,” said Jansen, who is the chief operating officer for the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, “that our common law and the laws that we had on the books before Stand Your Ground were adequate in allowing us enough legal tools in our toolbox to process these cases and move forward.”

Implicit bias against racial minorities in the criminal justice system is another problem area of the Stand Your Ground law, according to the task force report.

 “Every one of us carries around unconscious biases that operate in our minds even when we are not aware of it.” Harris said. “The criminal justice system as a whole does not account for implicit bias. It is a newer concept than what we have been dealing with in the past. In the criminal justice system, training for everybody — judges, jurors, police officers — would go a long way in addressing this.”

The task force report closes with a recommendation that the ABA develop a national public education campaign designed to provide educational resources and accurate information about Stand Your Ground laws.

"I am very hopeful that the American Bar Association will take a very vigorous position with respect to Stand Your Ground laws,” Middleton said. “We've heard nothing good about them from anybody and this has been through several public hearings. The more you look at it, the more problems you find. I am hopeful that the American Bar Association will eventually take a position against not only the criminal aspects of these Stand Your Ground laws, but perhaps the civil aspects of this law as well.”