Texas and the Stand Your Ground Law

The recent death of Florida teen Trayvon Martin has garnered national attention for a number of reasons. However, most of the controversy centers on Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law. Passed in 2005, the law has long been controversial; critics claim that its broad provisions encourage vigilante justice.

For those of you not aware of the facts of the case, they are as follows. On February 26, African-American teen Trayvon Martin was walking to his father’s girlfriend’s house. Upon seeing the teen walking, neighborhood watch captain George Zimmerman called 911 to report a “suspicious person.” The 911 dispatcher told Zimmerman to not follow the boy, but Zimmerman disregarded the request and went after him with 9mm gun. Martin, while on the phone with his girlfriend, noted that Zimmerman was following him and tried to walk away a little faster. He was unarmed, possessing only a bag of Skittles and bottle of iced tea. A struggle ensued, ending when Zimmerman shot and killed Martin. Zimmerman claimed self-defense, and the police cut short their initial investigation. It is a genuine possibility that under Florida law, Zimmerman’s claim of self-defense could give him absolute immunity from prosecution.

Most states, including Texas, have what’s called the “Castle Doctrine.” The Castle Doctrine is a very old legal principle that states a person does not have to retreat in the face of a home invader, and may use “deadly force” when reasonably fearing death or serious bodily harm from the intruder. The term comes from the old saying that “a man’s home is his castle.” Back in 2007, Texas became on of the few states, including Florida, to adopt a “Stand Your Ground” law. This meant that there was no longer a “duty to retreat,” in the home or elsewhere, before using deadly force in self-defense.

In Florida, which implemented its law in 2005, and in Texas, when a person claims self-defense, the burden is on police and prosecutors to prove otherwise. “Florida was kind of in the forefront of states passing that law,” St. Mary’s University law Professor Gerald Reamey said Thursday, describing Texas’ “Stand Your Ground” law that followed two years later as “pretty much identical with Florida.”

Prior to 2007, deadly force was not considered justified in Texas if retreat was possible. Prosecutors would often point out in murder trials that a defendant claiming self-defense could have walked, run or driven away. This is no longer required under the current law.

It’s not totally the Wild West as there are still limits on the books in Texas as to what constitutes self-defense. For instance, one must be lawfully at a place, must not have provoked a confrontation and must be in “reasonable fear” of his or her life.

Texas’ and Florida’s requirement that prosecutors must prove a slaying wasn’t self-defense – instead of the defendant having the burden of proof when making such a claim – does have critics given the burden that it places on prosecutors. Some have criticized this as allowing people to shoot first and then claim that they were threatened later.

The Castle Doctrine does have its place in American law and is a viable defense for protecting one’s home and loved ones.

Mick Mickelsen is a nationally recognized criminal trial attorney with more than 30 years of experience defending people charged with white-collar crimes, drug offenses, sex crimes, murder, and other serious state and federal offenses.