The latest media craze on the George Zimmerman trial has not only brought attention to race relations in this country, but is has also sparked debate on gun ownership and self-defense laws. Specifically, more and more people are hearing about Florida’s “Stand Your Ground Law”, which has become a topic of much discussion surrounding the Zimmerman trial.
For those not familiar with the Zimmerman trial, George Zimmerman (who happens who be half Caucasian, half Hispanic) was a 28 year old neighborhood watchmen of a neighborhood in Florida which had experienced a high number of burglaries and other criminal incidents. A 17 year old teenager named Trayvon Martin (who happened to be African-American) was walking home on the evening of February 26, 2012, around 7:09 p.m. and decided to cross through Zimmerman’s neighborhood. Zimmerman thought Martin was suspicious and called 911. In a series of events afterwards (many of which are contested and currently are at issue in trial), Zimmerman and Martin ended up in a confrontation that resulted in Martin being fatally shot. Zimmerman claims that Martin was on top of him, hitting him and slamming his head in the ground. Supporters of Martin claim that Zimmerman was the aggressor and profiled Martin because of his race. There were no eyewitnesses who could identify the aggressor or instigator of the confrontation.
The case not only raised racial issues but also has pointed attention to Florida’s so called “Stand Your Ground Law,” which has been controversial since Governor Jeb Bush signed it into law on April 26, 2005. The law expanded an individual’s legal right to use force in self-defense, including deadly force, without fear of criminal or civil consequences. In doing so, the law abrogated “the common law duty to retreat when attacked before using force, including deadly force in self-defense or defense of others.” See Sen. Christopher L. Smith, Final Report to Governor’s Task Force, April 2012. While the ability to defend oneself has been around for over a century, the common law requirement was that one had to make every effort to retreat before being justified in using deadly force. See Weiand v. State, 732 So. 2d 1044 (Fla. 1999).
With the recent focus on Stand Your Ground, the question many Indiana residents probably ask themselves is does Indiana have a similar law? One may be surprised to learn that Indiana does have a similar law, it just hasn’t been made the center of attention like in Florida.
Ind. Code § 35-41-3-2 covers self-defense. The Indiana General Assembly has specifically mentioned that in the statute that “. . . people have a right to defend themselves and third parties from physical harm and crime,” and the statute abrogates the common law duty to retreat. Particularly, the statute breaks down into different categories authorizing use of deadly force: 1) defense of self or others generally; 2) defense of self from someone unlawfully entering their home or vehicle; 3) and to prevent hijacking of airplanes (along with other limited situations or exceptions outside the scope of discussion). In all three categories, a person is justified to use deadly force and does not have a duty to retreat if 1) the person reasonably believes that the force is necessary to prevent serious bodily injury to the person or a third person or the commission of a forcible felony or if 2) the person reasonably believes that the force is necessary to prevent or terminate the other person’s unlawful entry of or attack on the person’s dwelling, curtilage, or occupied motor vehicle. Ind. Code § 35-41-3-2. A person can also use force, including deadly force, against any other person and does not have a duty to retreat if the person reasonably believes that the force is necessary to prevent or stop the other person from hijacking, attempting to hijack, or otherwise seizing or attempting to seize unlawful control of an aircraft in flight. Id.
Before a person is justified to kill an assailant in self-defense, he must believe that killing is necessary to preserve his own life or to prevent great bodily harm. Lloyd v. State, 398 N.E.2d 1260, (Ind. 1980). Persons without fault and being where they have a right to be, may, when violently assaulted, without retreating, repel force by force to the extent of taking life, if need be. White v. State, 349 N.E.2d 156, 158 (Ind. 1976). So in such a case where a person is without fault in causing the incident or confrontation, he or she is entitled to act in self-defense without having to retreat. This rule could be characterized as a type of Stand Your Ground Law.
However, the important exception to note is that if the person attacked is at “fault” (i.e. was the initial aggressor, is engaged in a crime or is unlawfully present), then he must attempt to retreat before he can use deadly force. Starr v. State, 67 N.E. 527 (Ind. 1903). The Ind. Supreme Court has consistently stated that self-defense may not be asserted by one who was the aggressor. Martin v. State, 512 N.E.2d 850 (Ind. 1987). Further, those who are engaged in the commission of a crime or escaping after the commission of a crime cannot claim self-defense. Ind. Code 35-41-3-2(g) and (h).
However, an exception exists when the person who was the initial aggressor “withdraws” from the situation and the other person continues to threaten him, then deadly force may be justified. Hirsch v. State, 697 N.E.2d 37 (Ind. 1998).
So, in a nutshell, if one is without “fault” in the cause of the confrontation, he may be entitled to “stand his ground” under certain circumstances to protect himself, his home or others.