Annual Meeting

States with stand-your-ground laws have seen an increase in homicides, reports task force

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Leigh-Ann Buchanan of Berger Singerman is
co-chair of the task force.
Photo by Kathy Anderson.

“Stand your ground” laws hinder law enforcement, are applied inconsistently and disproportionately affect minorities.

Those were the main findings from the ABA National Task Force on Stand Your Ground Laws. In a preliminary report (PDF) that was officially unveiled during a Friday session at the ABA Annual Meeting, the task force found that states which have some form of stand-your-ground law have also seen increasing homicide rates.

The task force, which was co-chaired by Leigh-Ann Buchanan of Berger Singerman and Jack Middleton of McLane Graf Raulerson & Middleton, conducted its investigation throughout most of 2013. It also found that stand-your-ground laws carry an implicit bias against racial minorities. In terms of the laws’ effects, the task force found that there was widespread confusion amongst law enforcement personnel as to what actions were justified and what were not.

The task force recommended that states either repeal stand-your-ground laws or refuse to enact them. Additionally, it encouraged the ABA to adopt an educational initiative to provide accurate information about these laws, as well as to correct the misconception that these laws provide carte blanche for people to use deadly force in public areas.

“We’ve heard nothing good about stand-your-ground laws,” said Middleton. “In fact, the more you look at them, the more problems you find. It’s our hope that the ABA as a whole will take a position against these laws.”

Stand-your-ground laws are currently in effect in some form in 33 states. The stand-your-ground laws eliminate the duty to retreat if individuals reasonably believe they are facing an imminent threat of bodily harm, and allow them to use force-including deadly force-without being found criminally liable. Some states also provide civil immunity to people who act pursuant to stand-your-ground laws. The terminology entered the mainstream lexicon when George Zimmerman shot and killed an unarmed Trayvon Martin in 2012 in Florida. Zimmerman was found not guilty of murder in July 2013.

The task force conducted five regional hearings throughout 2013; performed a 50-state survey; and cited empirical and statistical evidence gleaned from four different studies conducted around the country.

Task force member David Harris, a professor of law at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, pointed to a 2012 Texas A&M study by Mark Hoesktra and Cheng Cheng which found that in states that had enacted a stand-your-ground law, homicides actually increased by eight percent.

“Eight percent!” said David Harris. “Could you imagine if your city’s homicide rate went up by 8 percent?”

States that had stand-your-ground laws also often applied them inconsistently, according to their findings. Task force member Joshu Harris, an assistant district attorney at the Norfolk County District Attorney’s Office, cited numerous cases where individuals not only stood their ground but actively pursued and shot other individuals, even if there was no threat of imminent harm. “Prosecutors and victim rights advocates in our hearings confirmed the assertion that most [people who were killed in stand-your-ground cases] were unarmed,” said Joshu Harris.

Stand-your-ground laws vary greatly among states, and the task force found that police officers and prosecutors uniformly expressed confusion over how to enforce these laws. Harris noted that some laws define “imminent threat” differently from others, while some states have different rules and requirements depending on where the altercation took place. Another task force member, Joseph J. Vince, a former officer in the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, stated that there was widespread opposition from law enforcement personnel towards stand-your-ground laws.

“Instead of encouraging peaceful resolution through the rule of law, stand-your-ground laws encourage violent actions,” said Vince. “They place police officers at risk and give criminals an automatic defense.”

Racial bias was also front and center. For instance, the task force found that stand-your-ground laws carried an inherent bias against certain racial minorities due to cultural stereotypes about those groups being more threatening or violent. The task force found that in instances where a white shooter kills a black victim, that homicide was 350 percent more likely to be ruled as justified than if a white shooter killed a white person.

“Implicit racial bias is something everyone has,” said David Harris. “The criminal justice system does not account for implicit bias because it’s a newer concept than what we’ve been dealing with in the past. If we’re going to have stand-your-ground laws, then training would make a big difference.”

One thing the task force is calling for is additional research, including “a comprehensive study combining both the quantitative analysis and qualitative legal analysis of Stand Your Ground statutes.” Their preliminary report says they found “a substantial gap in the empirical research designed to measure the impact of Stand Your Ground laws on violent crimes, particularly violence linked to the use of firearms.”

According to Buchanan, the preliminary report will be made available for public comments. Buchanan said that she hopes to submit the report, as well as the task force’s proposed solutions, to the ABA House of Delegates during the 2015 ABA Midyear Meeting.

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