Law Fellow, Center for Media and Democracy
A Florida law that may protect the man who shot and killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in February is the template for an American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) "model bill" that has been pushed in other states. The bill was brought to ALEC by the National Rifle Association (NRA).
Florida's "stand your ground," or "castle doctrine," law could prevent the prosecution of George Zimmerman, the 28-year-old “neighborhood watch” vigilante who shot the unarmed Martin as the teen returned from a trip to 7-11 with an iced tea and a pack of Skittles. The law, also pushed by its supporters under the name the “Castle Doctrine,” changes state law by giving legal immunity to a person who uses deadly force if the person believed that he or she was in danger, or someone else was in danger, or if they thought that another person might commit a “forcible” felony. It also bars the deceased's family from bringing a civil suit.
Evidence suggests a major reason Zimmerman thought Trayvon Martin was a threat -- to Zimmerman, or to another person, or to private property -- is because he was black. On the recording of Zimmerman's call to 911 (which he made before pursuing the teen), he is heard using what sounds like a racial epithet and saying "he’s a black male…Something’s wrong with him…These a**holes, they always get away.” Zimmerman was a frequent caller to 911, almost always reporting black men. Zimmerman has neither been arrested nor charged with any crime, apparently because of the “stand your ground” law.
Florida's "stand your ground" law is nearly identical to the ALEC "model" Castle Doctrine Act.
From the Florida law:
(3) A person who is not engaged in an unlawful activity and who is attacked in any other place where he or she has a right to be has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.
And from the ALEC model:
(3) A person who is not engaged in an unlawful activity and who is attacked in any other place where he or she has a right to be has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another, or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.
ALEC is the corporate-funded organization that allows global corporations like Wal-Mart and ideological special interests like the NRA to hand state legislators changes to the laws they desire. ALEC “model bills” have served as the template for voter ID laws that swept the country in 2011, for the “voucher” programs that privatize education, for anti-environmental deregulatory bills, and for the wave of anti-union legislation in Wisconsin, Ohio, and Indiana.
The NRA conceived of the bill and first pushed it in Florida in 2005. Florida Senator Durell Peadon, an ALEC member, introduced the law in his state and it passed in early 2005 as NRA lobbyist Marion Hammer reportedly "stared down legislators as they voted." After Governor Jeb Bush signed it into law, Hammer presented the bill to ALEC's Criminal Justice Task Force (now known as the Public Safety and Elections Task Force) months later.
The Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) has uncovered how the NRA boasted that "[h]er talk was well-received," and the corporations and state legislators on the Task Force voted unanimously to approve the bill as an ALEC model. As CMD and Common Cause have noted, ALEC Task Force meetings are closed to the press and public, but corporations and ideological special interests or trade groups like the NRA vote as equals with elected officials. At the time, as CMD has documented, Wal-Mart was the corporate co-chair of the Task Force. Since becoming an ALEC model, 16 states have passed laws that contain provisions identical or similar to the ALEC "Castle Doctrine Act." In 2007 it was passed in four states and highlighted by ALEC on their "legislative scorecard," as discovered by Common Cause.
In 2011, controversial governor and ALEC alum Scott Walker signed into law in Wisconsin a Castle Doctrine bill that echoes the ALEC bill in key elements. On March 3 of this year, 20-year-old college student Bo Morrison was shot and killed by a homeowner in Slinger, Wisconsin as the young man hid from police after attending an underage drinking party. Because of the Castle Doctrine, no charges will be filed in the shooting. Like Trayvon Martin, Bo Morrison was black.
“The 'Stand Your Ground' law is a license to kill,’’ former U.S. attorney Kendall Coffey told NBC News, noting that the number of "justifiable homicides" in Florida has tripled since the law was passed in 2005.
The Castle Doctrine and its "stand your ground" provisions give license for people to engage in vigilantism without liability. As such, the ALEC bill can put the decision to take a life in the hands of a person whose fears are motivated by prejudice and racial bias. The law establishes a presumption that a person acted in self-defense if a killer claims they had a reasonable fear of bodily harm, but in situations like the killing of Trayvon Martin, where there were few eyewitnesses other than the alleged killer and the person who is killed, the presumption of immunity can be very difficult to rebut. In those circumstances, unfounded fear based on racial prejudice that leads to murder could end up being protected under the law.
“You want to know how you can kill somebody legally in Florida?” says Arthur Hayhoe, executive director of the Florida Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. “Make sure you have no witnesses, hunt the person down and then say you feared for your life.”
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