Monday, April 9, 2012

Innocent Until Proven Guilty

Florida's Stand Your Ground law creates a legal paradox.  Our legal system assumes innocence until guilt is proven.  Fortunately, it also has a 'limbo' state of being a suspect, so that when there is sufficient reason to suspect a lack of innocence, the police can apprehend a suspect.  This serves a few purposes, such as preventing escape and making destruction of evidence more difficult.  It may also protect the person.

That's why I think the safest thing for George Zimmerman is a trial.  Arrest him, put him on trial, and see what a jury decides.  He's already lost in the court of public opinion.  He has a bounty on his head, from a ridiculous almost entirely irrelevant fringe group, but it's there.  With tensions so high, with so much hatred flowing, I can easily imagine him being murdered.  Arrest would get him away from that.  A trial would put the backing of the state behind his innocence (if he is), rather than the legal assumption of innocence, which people don't accept very well, particularly when he very clearly did kill someone.  If he is found guilty, then he would receive an appropriate sentence, rather than vigilantism.

But let's return to the event itself and puzzle over the innocence.  We could interpret the Florida law two ways.  One way is just the plain perception of danger.  If someone perceives that they are in danger, they get to protect themselves without any need to retreat.  This is obviously an absurd interpretation because there are far too many situations in which someone may feel threatened, and note that I use the word feel, to distinguish from the reality of whether there is danger or intended threat.  Under this interpretation I could leave a dozen bodies during a five minute walk.  Maybe that homeless man is going to steal my backpack.  Maybe that black man walking in my direction is going to try the same.  Who are those young people there?  They might be drunk and dangerous.  It's very easy to feel threatened.

If we instead restrict the law to actual threats, something which can be proven without needing a mind-reader, then the shooting ends up being much different.  Now we have opposing assumptions of innocence.  If we assume Zimmerman is innocent, then we must be assuming that Trayvon is guilty because he would have been the aggressor.  If we assume Trayvon is innocent, meaning that he was not attacking or threatening Zimmerman, then we're assuming that Zimmerman is guilty of shooting an innocent person.  There is an interpretation of the event which I've not seen covered much: that Zimmerman was following Trayvon, which would make Trayvon the one who can feel threatened, so that even if he had attacked Zimmerman, he would be covered by the stand your ground law while Zimmerman would be an aggressor who escalated the situation without legal justification.

They cannot be simultaneously innocent, though we act as if they were by granting both of them innocence by default.  The law, and the way it has been interpreted, does this as well.  It doesn't care if there is an actual threat or danger.  It only goes by feeling.  That means that Zimmerman is innocent of murder even if he shoots an innocent person because all he had to do was feel.  That's a strange law.

This is where retreat requirements become useful.  If I retreat and the perceived threat follows, if I run and it runs, that's something more than a feeling, that's an action.  Chasing is an aggressive act.  A retreat requirement essentially generates evidence which supports the innocence of the defender and acts a buffer against biases.  A scary homeless man might just be my perception, but if a homeless man chases me, now the fear is justified (or at least more so than if we're just walking in the same direction).  A retreat requirement protects him from my unreasonable fear while also protecting me legally if I am forced to act.  Similarly, 'castle' laws which allow individuals to use deadly force within their own homes provide this buffer.  If someone is in my home without my invitation, something is clearly wrong.  Assuming locked doors, which if you have a gun handy at home, I'd guess you lock your doors, anyone in your home is either there by invitation or there by force.  Defense is clearly warranted and a retreat requirement for your own home would make no sense at all.

The streets aren't our homes.  They are public property (usually) and as such, are subject to different social and legal rules.  It seems to me that on public property, "avoid shooting people unless necessary" is a pretty good rule.

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