Monday, April 2, 2012

(Not) Standing on Solid Ground

There's been plenty of outcry from across the country in the past month over the tragic shooting of Trayvon Martin near Orlando, Florida. There's been growing suspicion both of shooter George Zimmerman and his motives for killing Trayvon, as well as of Florida's "Stand Your Ground" Law, and just how much that contributed to Trayvon's untimely death.

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Yesterday, The Sun asked: Can it happen here?

In Las Vegas, officials and academics are taking a close look at the Martin case, and for good reason: Nevada recently passed a law nearly identical to Florida’s, leading many to believe a similar tragedy could play out in the Silver State.

“The circumstances are ripe for a Trayvon situation to happen here,” said Sylvia Lazos, a law professor at UNLV's Boyd School of Law. “We have a lot of crime. We have a lot of people with guns. We have a lot of people who are untrained. We have to watch it. ... These combinations can be quite toxic.”

Nevada is one of 25 states, according to the Legal Community Against Violence, with a law allowing individuals to use deadly force when they feel threatened with no obligation to stand down or try to avoid violence once reasonable fear is established.

Nevada’s “stand your ground” law was approved by the 2011 Legislature and took effect in October. It allows that as long as a person who feels threatened didn’t initiate the altercation and isn’t doing anything criminal, that person can stand and use deadly force and it would be considered “justifiable homicide.”

Such laws “are all designed to allow for some expanded notion of self-defense,” Lazos said. “The problem that you have when regular people engage in self-defense ... is that people make decisions fairly quickly about whether they are, in fact, in danger.”

Last year, our Legislature passed AB 321, which was a somewhat modified version of "Stand Your Ground" that formalized the already accepted view (in this state) that people can shoot to kill if they feel their lives and/or property is at stake. While AB 321 may "feel good" in that it supposedly empowers potential crime victims to "stop a crime before it starts" (along with providing politicians who support it with plenty of praise from the NRA), it may soon lead to some frightening unintended consequences. Case in point: Trayvon Martin.

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Last session, all but three Nevada legislators (for both houses COMBINED!) voted for AB 321. Assembly Members Maggie Carlton (D-East Las Vegas), Richard Carrillo (D-Paradise), and Peggy Pierce (D-Las Vegas) were the only ones to vote against AB 321, while all their Assembly colleagues either sponsored or co-sponsored this bill in addition to voting for it. The Senate passed AB 321 unanimously. Sadly here in Nevada, "trigger happy" on steroids can be prevalent in both parties, and it especially reoccurs when NRA and other gun lobby endorsements are at stake.

So far, there's been no hard evidence proving George Zimmerman was in danger of losing his life or any of his property when he spotted Trayvon Martin in his gated community. However that didn't stop certain folks in law enforcement from letting George Zimmerman go without charging him for homicide, simply because Zimmerman's lawyers claimed "Stand Your Ground" as his defense. There's a good chance we can see cases like this occur here in Nevada thanks to AB 321.

And frankly, that's why state statutes like Nevada's AB 321 and Florida's "Stand Your Ground" Law frighten me. They set up a dangerous slippery slope for justifying as "self-defense" what would otherwise be declared manslaughter or murder. After all, what we may consider murder can be twisted by a smart criminal defense attorney into a "Stand Your Ground" situation just by insinuating that the homicide victim was somehow threatening the shooter's life and/or property, even if there's little or no evidence that the shooter was really at risk.

So why are we now falling down this slippery slope? Why did we have to take this downhill course in the first place? And can we afford to keep making decisions out of political convenience while ignoring future public safety crises?

1 comment:

  1. Nevada has a high standard of justification in the use of deadly force in self-defense. AB321 did not change or lower that standard. It has been case law since 1990 with no problems presented. AB321 only put the case law into our statues. Good work NV Legislature!

    NRS 200.130 Bare fear insufficient to justify killing; reasonable fear required. A bare fear of any of the offenses mentioned in NRS 200.120, to prevent which the homicide is alleged to have been committed, shall not be sufficient to justify the killing. It must appear that the circumstances were sufficient to excite the fears of a reasonable person and that the party killing really acted under the influence of those fears and not in a spirit of revenge.
    [1911 C&P § 130; RL § 6395; NCL § 10077]