As an Arizona criminal defense attorney in Mesa, I have found it interesting how the George Zimmerman trial has created a national debate about the wisdom of so-called "stand your ground" laws. Many states have enacted such statutes which basically remove the ancient requirement that one had a duty to retreat prior to claiming self-defense. Although Florida was the first state (in 2005) to adopt a "stand your ground" statute, the legal concept has been around more than a century.
In 1895, the United States Supreme Court first utilized the term "stand your ground" in a murder case that involved the disputed ownership of a single cow. See, Beard v. United States, 158 U.S. 550; 15 S.Ct. 962 (1895). On more than one occasion, the three Jones brothers had attempted to remove the cow in question from Mr. Beard’s farm. Those prior unsuccessful attempts had all been accompanied by verbal threats and the brandishing of firearms. 158 U.S. at 551; 15 S.Ct. at 962. On the day Will Jones was injured, he was concealing a pistol in his pants pocket. When Mr. Beard again ordered the Jones brothers to leave the Beard farm, Will Jones approached Mr. Beard in a menacing "angry" manner. As he came closer, Will Jones was attempting to pull his pistol out of his pocket. Although he too was armed, Mr. Beard did not shoot, but simply smacked Will over the head with his shotgun. Will Jones died a few days later from a crushed skull. 158 U.S. at 553; 15 S.Ct. at 963.
During the jury instruction phase of Mr. Beard’s murder trial, the judge instructed the jury about a long-standing principle of self defense which was that Mr. Beard had no obligation to retreat from danger in his own home, but that anywhere else (including his own property), he had a legal obligation to retreat from danger prior to "repelling force by force". 158 U.S. at 555; 15 S.Ct. at 964. In overturning Mr. Beard’s murder conviction, the Supreme Court noted that so long as Mr. Beard did "not provoke the assault" and was still on his own property "where he had a right to be" then Mr. Beard was, "not obliged to retreat, nor to consider whether he could safely retreat, but was entitled to stand his ground." 158 U.S. at 564; 15 S.Ct. at 967 (Emphasis added.)
Three and a half decades later, the Supreme Court expanded the "stand your ground" doctrine to include public property. See, Brown v. United States, 256 U.S. 335, 41 S.Ct. 501, 65 L.Ed 961 (1921) (involving at altercation that occurred on ground where a post office was being constructed – it seems that even a hundred years ago, people were already "going postal.")
What makes the national debate even more complicated is that the various state statutes are not identical. The precise places and reasons that permit you to stand your ground can vary significantly from state to state. Arizona statutes, for example, specifically note that "a person has no duty to retreat" if he or she is "in a place where the person may legally be and is not engaged in an unlawful act." A.R.S. §13-405(B). However, in order for a criminal defense lawyer to assert self-defense in Arizona, the person must also: not have "provoked" the attack; cannot use force to resist an arrest; and, there must be more than just a "verbal provocation". A.R.S. §13-404(B).
While we will always do what we need to do to protect ourselves and those we love, sorting through the legal quagmire involved in a self-defense claim can be one of the most perplexing and stressful endeavors of any person’s life. If the Zimmerman trial has taught us anything, it is that a competent criminal defense attorney is an essential part of any self-defense claim.