Self Defense In California Means "Stand Your Ground"

April 6, 2012

There has been a lot of publicity over the case in Florida where the unarmed teenager, Trayvon Martin, was killed during a confrontation with George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch member. Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law has been used as an argument to justify the shooting of this young man. What does California's self-defense law say about when and how the shooting of an unarmed person can be justified?

Every self-defense case turns on the facts of the confrontation, the history of the individuals involved, the relative size of the combatants, the knowledge, if any, of the history of violence between the participants, and a host of other factors. To hear the commentators pontificate on whether or not the shooting was justified without full knowledge of the facts irritates this criminal defense attorney. No one thinks it acceptable to shoot an unarmed man without any justification at all. However, the commentators in this case seem to give their opinions on the case without any reference to the actual facts but, instead, base their opinions on their political or racial biases. Facts drive self-defense cases from both the prosecution and the defense. The law is usually clear. It's the facts that are confusing and often contradictory (depending on the source) and applying those facts to the law is the difficult part. If you already have a bias or your mind is made up based on your personal belief then why examine the facts or the law?

The law of self-defense in California is clear. An aggressor in the initial fight cannot later claim self-defense. How do you define who the aggressor is? Is it the one who threw the first punch? Is it the guy who got out of his car and follows someone who he thinks, rightly or wrongly, is suspicious? Many times the role of aggressor is clear. He punched me without any justification. Then I fought back. Then he beat me to a pulp. Well, of course, I am still the victim even though I fought back. The aggressor cannot claim self-defense just because the person he attacked fought back. But, the difficulty in the tough case is what actions led to the actual physical fight? Were threats made, postures taken, which would lead a reasonable person to believe that if he didn't hit first he would be severely injured or killed if he didn't act quickly? If so, even a first strike can be justified.

The general rules are: you have a right to defend yourself; you have a right to use deadly force to meet a deadly threat; and, even in California, you do not have to retreat, even if you could to avoid the assault on yourself. The application of these general rules of law is the tricky part. The successful conclusion for a defendant in a criminal case involving self-defense requires the skillful use of all available facts by the criminal defense lawyer who applies those facts to the law.