Friday, April 18, 2014

"Stand Your Ground" Laws. An Opinion From Dr. Jerome Barber

     In a thread that appeared on the LinkedIn site Martial Arts Black Belt forum, the question was raised as to whether or not martial arts training should be different for persons of color.  As the discussion developed, the Trayvon Martin case was brought in.  Admittedly this was a tangent and took us to a very different set of comments and points of view.  I was even accused of being a racist in an indirect passive-aggressive manner by a gentlemen who's position is that George Zimmerman acted in self defense when he shot and killed Trayvon Martin.   Obviously we disagree on that contention but not for the reason that most people would think.  While race was certainly a major factor in Zimmerman physically confronting Martin, thereby leading to the shooting, my contention is that if Zimmerman had followed the directive of the 911 operator and stopped following Trayvon Martin, he never would have been in the situation where he needed to use his firearm. 

     I further contend that if Zimmerman had followed the generally accepted behavioral standards of the Neighborhood Watch Patrol philosophy as found on any number of websites that discuss the program objectives, he would not have approached Martin, nor would he have been armed. 

      I believe that the following information makes it very clear that Zimmerman had an additional personal agenda on the night that he approached Trayvon Martin, that went well beyond his duties and objectives as a Neighborhood Watch Captain and patrol person.  I can only speculate as to what that additional agenda might have been so it is better to set it aside and reflect on the more objective information that is available to us.  Zimmerman did follow the basic operational standards for a Citizen on Patrol individual by calling the police to report a suspicious individual in his community, however, what followed was clearly outside of the accepted standards of patrol conduct.

Below is a fairly standard protocol for neighbor watch organizations:

Reporting Suspicious Activity

Anything that seems slightly “out of place” or is occurring at an unusual time of day could be criminal activity.  Report all suspicious activity. Do not worry about bothering the police or about being embarrassed if your suspicions prove to be unfounded. Think instead about what could happen if you don’t act.

Do not attempt to apprehend a person committing a crime or to investigate suspicious activity.        Call the police immediately. (Emphasis added.)

The Citizens On Patrol (COP) program is designed to be an additional component of the Neighborhood Crime Watch Program. A successful Neighborhood Crime Watch group may decide to get out of their homes and into their cars to patrol their neighborhoods. COP members are the “eyes and ears” of the police department, reporting suspicious activity and deterring any future crime.
COP participants actively patrol their own neighborhoods observing and reporting suspicious activity through the use of cellular telephones. COP members will not have to place themselves in dangerous situations and are trained to identify potentially harmful situations and learn how to stay safe. (Emphasis added.)

Citizens On Patrol is considered an advanced observation program, not focusing on intervention or confrontation. Participants will not need to carry weapons, and are prohibited from doing so.  (Emphasis added.)

The police department will provide educational programs and materials designed to inform the COP participants in general topics of police functions, including legal issues, communications, property offenses, and patrol procedures.
------------------------------- End of Quotation ------------------------------

     Please note that Zimmerman exited his own vehicle in order to follow and then physically confront Martin.  Zimmerman was also armed with a handgun while 'on duty' as a Neighborhood Watch Patrol person.  I tend to view his behavior in the context of the behavioral standards noted above and with the added point that he was advised by the 911 operator that he was not needed to follow the "suspicious person" because the police had been dispatched to the scene.  It seems to me that Zimmerman took it upon himself to overstep the bounds of the standard behavioral protocols of  a Neighbor Patrol person leading directly to the death of a young man who was not engaged in any type of illegal or criminal activity  at the time he was confronted. 

     I understand and accept the fact that the jury did not find Zimmerman guilty of murder.  I also fully understand and accept the reality that he can never be tried again on that charge.  My questions with regard to the trial are as follows:

1.  Should the prosecution team have brought up the "generally accepted standards" argument in their  presentation to the jury?  How difficult would that have been to research?

2.  Should the prosecution team have brought up the fact that in a civil case against the Homeowners Association that authorized the Neighborhood Patrols, that the Martin Family won their case for financial compensation because of the 'wrongful death' of Trayvon Martin which was caused by a member of their authorized patrol.

     I understand that the civil case is different from the criminal case but I am sure that in the civil case the defendants, the homeowners association, had to produce evidence regarding the training of their patrol personnel and sought to separate themselves from George Zimmerman to avoid incurring an even larger financial liability.

3.  Should the prosecution team have brought up the right of Trayvon Martin to defend himself against an unlawful assault and harassment by a unknown person whose actions were unwarranted
because Martin was legally in a public place where he had every right to be and not engaged in any sort of illegal or criminal activity at the time he was accosted by Zimmerman.  Didn't Martin have the right to defend himself under the Florida "Stand your Ground" statutes?

4.  Under what statutes of Florida law did Zimmerman have the right to physically follow and/or pursue and then physically engage Trayvon Martin?

     I believe that if these questions had been asked and presented to the jury that there might have been a different verdict rendered. \ A lingering question that I have for the legislators and governor of Florida is why won't they amend the "Stand your Ground" statute to restrict for the most part any sort of pursuit behavior for non-criminal or non-felony actions in a public place?  In other words, if someone has to follow, chase or otherwise pursue another person, how can that be called and legally viewed as 'Standing Your Ground'?  The law could certainly allow for pursuit of a person if a felony crime had been committed and witnessed, but otherwise, leaving a "safe place" in order to engage another person should not be allowed under the law as standing your ground.

Jerome Barber, Ed. D.