Stand Your Ground and Civil Liability: What Do You Tell Clients?

By Robyn Hagan Cain on March 22, 2012 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The tragic death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin has prompted a national dialogue about "stand your ground" laws and the Castle Doctrine. Many question whether George Zimmerman, a Sanford, Fla. neighborhood watch leader, should evade prosecution under Florida's stand your ground law, which allows the use of force if a person "reasonably believes" it is necessary to protect the person's own life, the life of another, or to prevent a forcible felony, reports USA Today. Critics say that Zimmerman was unreasonable in shooting Martin, who was armed only with Skittles and iced tea.

As the Trayvon Martin case continues to unfold, California lawyers will probably receive calls from current and prospective clients inquiring about California's take on the stand your ground laws. While most citizens are concerned about the possibility of criminal charges, you should be prepared to answer questions about both criminal consequences and civil liability for the use of force.

First, you might explain to clients that California has a Castle Doctrine, but it does not have an explicit, Florida-style stand your ground statute. The state's Castle Doctrine, California Penal Code sec. 198.5, states that a person who uses deadly force against an intruder in his home is presumed "to have held a reasonable fear of imminent peril of death or great bodily injury to self" and acted in self-defense.

Further, the Judicial Council's Criminal Jury Instructions on self-defense state, "A defendant is not required to retreat. He or she is entitled to stand his or her ground and defend himself or herself and, if reasonably necessary, to pursue an assailant until the danger of (death/great bodily injury) ... has passed."

In any self-defense case, however, the jury instructions state that a person "is only entitled to use that amount of force that a reasonable person would believe is necessary in the same situation. If the defendant used more force than was reasonable, the [attempted] killing was not justified."

Second, you could counsel clients that -- regardless of whether a person is considered guilty of a criminal offense -- a jury can find civil liability for an injury. The most famous California case in which this happened was the O.J. Simpson trial. While the jury in Simpson's criminal trial concluded that there was not enough evidence to find Simpson guilty "beyond a reasonable doubt," the jury in Simpson's civil liability trial found enough evidence to conclude that Simpson wrongfully caused his wife's death by a "preponderance of the evidence."

Finally, remind clients to think before using deadly force. The Trayvon Martin tragedy raises the point that stand your ground laws promote a "shoot first, think later" mentality. Even if a client avoids jail or even civil liability for killing a perceived aggressor, he has to live with the fact that he took another life.

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