Since George Zimmerman Shot Tayvon Martin, there has been a great deal of talk about Florida's so-called Stand Your Ground law being a license for vigilantes to use deadly force. A closer look at the statute shows that this is not true in the case of individuals who initiate the encounter that results in the shooting.
The starting point is the majority rule on self-defense, generally known as the Retreat Rule. Under New Jersey Law, by way of illustration, an honest and objectively reasonable belief that deadly force was necessary in self-defense is a complete defense to both murder and manslaughter. State v. Rodriguez, 195 N.J. 165 (2008). Under N.J.S.A. 2C:3-4b(2) the right to use deadly force in self-defense has two limits: the defendant must not have "with the purpose of causing death or serious bodily injury, provoked the use of deadly force against himself in the same encounter," and the defendant must not know that he can retreat in complete safety. One is not required to retreat before using deadly force in one's home.
Florida allows deadly force in self-defense if the defendant reasonably believes that it is necessary to prevent death or serious bodily injury. In contrast to New Jersey, Florida expressly does not require retreat before the use of deadly force. and it expressly confers immunity from prosecution and civil liability for someone who uses deadly force within the limits of the statute. However, that defense is not available to one who initiates the fatal encounter.
In other words, if an individual initially provokes no attack on himself, he may not use deadly force in response unless he has no reasonable alternative or unless he has unsuccessfully tried to retreat.
Florida's law clearly allows the use of deadly force more broadly than New Jersey's in a wide variety of encounters outside the home. But it is not a license to go looking for trouble. Based on the text of the 911 call, Zimmerman's history of similar complaints, the physical evidence of injuries to both Martin and Zimmerman, and any eyewitness accounts, the Florida jury will have to sort out whether the armed Zimmerman had any reasonable fear of deadly force from Martin to begin with, and if so, whether Zimmerman provoked the encounter, whether he had any reasonable alternative to shooting Martin after he did, and whether he could have retreated. Even under the Stand Your Ground law, amateur citizens meddle at their own risk.