What Is the Stand Your Ground Law?

By Teo Spengler - Updated April 17, 2018
Dark man pointing a gun looking at the camera

Standing your ground when faced with an aggressor sounds like the better half of fight or flight to some people. But the stand-your-ground laws are quite controversial and have resulted in what many people consider unnecessary deaths. The details of the laws differ among states, but they basically provide that a person who is in a place where he has a right to be can use deadly force to repel an unlawful intruder, without trying to retreat first, if he perceives the intruder as a threat.

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A stand-your-ground law gives people the right to use deadly force if they feel threatened in a place they have a right to be.

What Are Stand Your Ground Laws?

Under the common law, a person has a duty to retreat from aggression if possible before using deadly force. Stand-your-ground laws create a broad exception to this. The common law "castle" doctrine allowed people to use deadly force against an intruder who enters their home or office. Stand-your-ground laws, enacted in many states, take this one step further, extending that right to any place, including a public place, where a person has a right to be. These laws provide authority to use any level of force, including deadly force, against an immediate threat of serious bodily harm.

What Are the Stand Your Ground States?

Many states have enacted explicit stand-your-ground laws. These include, in alphabetical order: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah and West Virginia.

A few other states, like California, have not adapted specific stand-your-ground laws, but allow the doctrine as part of their self-defense law. In these states, it is the courts that have interpreted self-defense statutes to include the right to defend yourself in a public place.

What is Considered Self Defense By Law?

Self defense is a legal justification for aggressive actions. Every state has laws authorizing people who are under attack to use reasonable force to defend themselves or other people around them. If proven, self-defense is a defense to criminal charges that stem from use of force, like homicide, assault and battery.

Generally, in order to have a valid claim of self-defense in a criminal case, an accused must prove that self-defense was justified. The rule is that you can use only reasonable force, and only when it appears reasonably necessary to prevent an injury. When you use force in self-defense, it should be only as much force as is required to stop the threat. Normally, deadly force cannot be used to repel non-deadly force.

Stand Your Ground Law Cases

Several stand-your-ground law cases have proved extremely controversial. One such case occurred in 1984, when three young black men approached Bernhard Goetz, a white tech worker, on a subway train in New York. Goetz, a white computer technician, had been mugged some two years earlier.

One of the young men asked Goetz to give him five dollars, and Goetz stood up and shot four times at the youths, hitting two of them in the back. He then walked up to another of the young men named Darryl Cabey and fired again into his spinal cord, leaving him paralyzed from the chest down. Goetz was charged with attempted murder, assault, criminal possession of a weapon and reckless endangerment. He claimed that he had acted in self-defense, and the jury convicted him only of illegal gun possession. However, Cabey sued him and won a verdict of $43 million.

A second, well-known stand-your-ground case involved the killing of Trayvon Martin in Florida by an armed neighborhood watch volunteer, George Zimmerman. Martin was an unarmed, black, 17-year-old high school student walking through Zimmerman's neighborhood. Zimmerman was white and armed and he shot and killed Martin. Zimmerman was ultimately acquitted on claims of self-defense. Although he did not rely on the stand-your-ground doctrine, the case brought it into the public eye, raising issues in many people's minds about the wisdom of these laws.

About the Author

Teo Spengler earned a J.D. from U.C. Berkeley's Boalt Hall. As an Assistant Attorney General in Juneau, she practiced before the Alaska Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court before opening a plaintiff's personal injury practice in San Francisco. She holds both an M.A. and an M.F.A in creative writing and enjoys writing legal blogs and articles. Spengler splits her time between the French Basque Country and Northern California.

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