Jacob Sullum

The New York Times reports that George Zimmerman's murder trial, which began on Monday in Sanford, Fla., is "spotlighting Florida's Stand Your Ground law," even though "that law has not been invoked in this case."

Writing in The Guardian two weeks ago, Sadhbh Walshe likewise claimed "the trial will shine a spotlight on Florida's controversial self-defense laws," although she also conceded that Zimmerman's defense does not depend on the right to stand your ground.

Ever since Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch organizer, shot and killed Trayvon Martin, an unarmed teenager, on a rainy night in February 2012, critics of Florida-style self-defense laws have used the case to illustrate how eliminating the duty to retreat when attacked in public excuses unjustified violence. They are having a hard time letting go, although by now it is abundantly clear that the right to stand your ground is not relevant to the question of Zimmerman's guilt.

Zimmerman, who called police to report a "suspicious" person, possibly a burglar, after seeing Martin walking through his neighborhood, says the 17-year-old assaulted him, knocking him to the ground with a punch to the face and repeatedly smacking his head against the pavement. He says his pistol became visible during the fight and Martin began reaching for it, at which point Zimmerman, fearing for his life, grabbed the gun and shot Martin in the chest.

By Zimmerman's account, then, there was no chance to retreat, so the right to stand your ground has nothing to do with his defense. Still, says The New York Times, "Florida's Stand Your Ground law ... was cited by the Sanford police as the reason officers did not initially arrest Mr. Zimmerman." But the provision cited by police, although it was included in the same 2005 bill that eliminated the duty to retreat, is unrelated to the "stand your ground" principle.

The police said they did not charge Zimmerman right away because of a provision that prohibits a law enforcement agency from arresting someone who claims to have used deadly force in self-defense "unless it determines that there is probable cause that the force that was used was unlawful." In other words, the fact that Zimmerman killed Martin (which he has always admitted) was not enough; the police also needed reason to doubt his self-defense claim.

Whether or not that seems like a reasonable requirement to you, it is completely distinct from the right to stand your ground. Even a state that imposes a duty to retreat could nevertheless require police to meet this probable-cause test before arresting someone who claims self-defense.

Jacob Sullum

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason magazine and a contributing columnist on Townhall.com.
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