By Our Friend, Attorney Russell Richelsoph, 480-733-6800
There has been a lot of publicity regarding Stand Your Ground
self-defense laws since the unfortunate events in Sanford, Florida
on February 26, 2012 involving George Zimmerman and Trayvon
Martin. The news media repeatedly cited Florida’s Stand Your
Ground self-defense law and as a result, these same self-defense
laws have come under attack. Arizona has very similar self-defense
laws to Florida.
Unfortunately, the attack on Stand Your Ground, using the Zimmerman
case as ammunition, has been mostly based on misinformation
about the facts of the case and what Stand Your Ground Laws
do and do not allow you to do.
So what are these Stand Your Ground self-defense laws that the
news media is making such a fuss about?
In Arizona you are justified in threatening or using physical force to defend yourself against another to the extent that a reasonable person would believe it is immediately necessary to protect themselves against another person’s use of unlawful physical force against them. For example, if someone is punching you, or attempting to punch you, you may use just enough physical force against them to stop them from punching you. You may not punch them until they fall to the ground and then start kicking them.
In Arizona, you are justified in threatening or using deadly physical force against another if a reasonable person would believe that deadly physical force is immediately necessary to protect yourself against the other’s use, or attempted use, of unlawful deadly physical force against you. For example, if someone is threatening you with deadly force, such as a knife, bat, or a gun, you may use a level of physical force which may kill them in order stop them from harming you. However, deadly physical force does not require a weapon. If someone has you pinned down and is choking you, you would probably be justified in using deadly force to protect yourself. The police and prosecutors look at many factors when deciding whether or not the use of deadly force is justified in a self-defense situation. If a lone 140 pound woman is being physically attacked by a 250 pound unarmed man, the woman may be justified in using deadly physical force to defend herself. The prosecutor is going to consider the reasonableness of the use of force in deciding whether to prosecute. If a reasonable person would believe that the use of deadly force was necessary for the woman to protect herself, then it would be justified.
Here is the supposedly controversial part of the law. You do not have a duty to retreat before threatening or using deadly physical force if you are in a place where you may legally be and you are not engaged in an unlawful act. Surprised? All that Stand Your Ground means is that you do not have to run away if you would be otherwise justified to use deadly force. This was not even an issue in the Zimmerman case. Zimmerman was accused of provoking the situation and escalating it all the way to deadly force. Stand Your Ground does not allow this.
Arizona does place some limitations on the use of self-defense. You are not justified in using physical force against another person in response to a verbal provocation. If someone insults your mother, you are not justified in physical attacking them. Likewise, you are not justified in using physical force to resist an arrest by a police officer, even if that arrest is unlawful, unless the police officer’s use of physical force exceeds that allowed by law. If Officer Friendly is arresting you and you do not believe the charge is justified, you may not fight with Officer Friendly to try to prevent the arrest. On the other hand, if Officer Friendly has you handcuffed and is bashing your head against the hood of his car, then you may be justified in using physical force to stop him and to protect yourself. Keep in mind that in these situations, the prosecutor reviewing the case is going to give the police officers the benefit of the doubt. Also, Arizona law does not permit you to use physical force if you were the one who provoked the encounter unless you withdraw from the encounter, or clearly communicate it is your intent to withdraw from the encounter, and the other person still attempts to use unlawful physical force against you. If you go up to some big guy, punch him, and insult his mother, and the big guy starts beating you up, you are not justified in using physical force unless you attempt to leave and withdraw from the encounter and the other person continues attacking you.
Your goal in any self-defense situation should be to stop the threat. The first thing you should do if you have been involved in a self-defense shooting is get to a safe place if you fear there may be other assailants who could attack you. The next thing you should do is call 911 or have someone call 911 for you. Make sure you give a good physical description of yourself and clearly state that you feared for your life, that you acted in self-defense, and give the dispatcher the location of where you defended yourself as well as your current location. This is all you should say with regards to what happened.
If you are involved in a situation involving deadly physical force, do not be surprised if the police come to the situation with their guns drawn and they aggressively handcuff you. This is routine. When the police arrive, you should immediately place your weapon on the ground where they can clearly see it. Cooperate with the police commands. This may involve you lying on the ground with your hands away from your body.
DO NOT place your firearm back in your safe before police arrive unless you want the police to confiscate every weapon you have in the safe.
DO NOT try to explain yourself or what happened. You should not answer any questions until you have had an opportunity to consult with an attorney. Politely tell the police that you are not going to answer any questions until you have had a chance to speak with an attorney. Even police officers involved in a shooting speak to an attorney from their union before they agree to be questioned about it. You should exercise this same right even if it means you have to spend the night in jail. It is better to spend one night in jail, than to spend years of your life in prison because you did not consult with an attorney before trying to explain your actions to police.
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