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Clarification of self-defense and stand-your-ground

BY GUEST OPINION | APRIL 09, 2012 6:30 AM

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George Zimmerman continues to enjoy his right to freedom of movement and residence in Florida after killing the 17-year-old Trayvon Martin about a month ago. This freedom was granted after he told the police that he was acting in self-defense. Indeed, according to Section 776.032 of the Florida Statutes, a person who uses deadly force in self-defense "is immune from criminal prosecution." His relatives, attorney, and criminal defense lawyer continue to use this self-defense claim as a fatal arm against Trayvon'sfamily and thousands of Americans, including President Obama, who ask for clarity and justice. In order to participate in this case and to inform those who would like to understand the legal concept of self-defense, I have decided to focus on something that the media have not yet explained: the elements of self-defense.

In a nutshell, a person can claim to have acted in self-defense when he or she protects him- or herself, a third party, or his or her property against an injury attempted by another person. For this claim to be successful, there need to exist at least four elements: unlawful force, reasonableness, imminence of the threat, proportionality of forces. These elements are not exactly the same in all U.S. states and in all states in the world but are only slightly different. For instance, they are the same in France (La Légitime Défense).

First, the defense has to be an unlawful force used against you that is contrary to the law. You cannot claim to have acted in self-defense against a police agent and you cannot claim self-defense when you are the person who has provoked the act. Second, you must demonstrate that the force that you used was the only way to save your life; in other word, the force used has to be reasonable: "deadly force against deadly attack." Third, the threat against you has to be imminent and immediate. You cannot use revenge. Fourth, the amount of force that you use has to be proportional to that used by your assailant. The degree of force used should not be excessive

The facts in our case tell us that Trayvon on the night that he was killed was carrying a bag of Skittles, a can of Arizona iced tea, and his cell phone. Zimmerman, 28 years old, was driving a car, had a 9 millimeter semiautomatic handgun. Following Trayvon, Zimmerman called 911 to report a suspicious person walking in the neighborhood in Sanford, Fla. The police reported to have asked Zimmerman not to follow the kid but he did not stop and apparently he left his car to provoke Trayvon. Zimmerman told the police that Trayvon assaulted him, punching his nose and slamming his head into the pavement and that these are the reasons he killed him.

While explaining the concept of self-defense earlier, I said that at least four elements have to be put together for a self-defense claim to be successful; unlawful force, reasonableness, imminence of the threat, and proportionality of forces. In applying this to our case, we see that all of these elements are not present. Indeed, Zimmerman had a vehicle and a gun, he was 11 years older than Trayvon (a minor) and apparently he provoked Trayvon because he left his car to follow him.

The claim of self-defense cannot be reasonably retained because of lack of reasonableness, unlawful force, and proportionality of forces; Zimmerman used excessive forces.

Henri Nkuepo
UI law research scholar


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