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Flaw In The Law

By Cathy Stripe Lester

23 July, 2013

A poorly-written law can cause more problems than it solves. Having found that Michigan has a Self-Defense Law, I was naturally curious to see how my native state compares with Florida. Congratulations, Michigan! Our law is short and to the point. The core of it reads, “An individual who … is not engaged in the commission of a crime … may use deadly force… if the individual honestly and reasonably believes that the use of deadly force is necessary to prevent the imminent death or of imminent great bodily harm …” Obviously, this means that a crook who bursts in waving a gun cannot claim “self-defense.”

The Florida law, on the other hand, is long, rambling, and almost amounts to an invitation to murder.

For one thing, the Florida law says that the one who provokes aggression against him-or-herself is not allowed to use “self defense” as a justification …. UNLESS the force that’s used against him is so great that they believe they’re in danger. So in effect, anyone in Florida can provoke a fight, and then shoot the other person … and claim justifiable self-defense, and walk free.

It’s like the old Westerns where the town villain would start fights knowing he’d win. A badly-written law can bring those days back, without a Clint or a Matt Dillon to stalk out into the street and finally put the baddies into Boot Hill. And incidentally, people who want more guns to protect themselves generally don’t imagine they could be in a shootout with some guy who’s hyped-up and quicker on the draw than they are.

It used to be that if two gang members got into a knife fight and one got killed, the other would go to jail (providing he was found). With the Michigan law, willingly getting into a knife fight is illegal in the first place, but with the Florida law, the killer gets to claim he was in “imminent danger.” He walks.

Sound far-fetched? Here are some Florida cases that resulted in acquittalbecause of the way Florida’s law is interpreted in court: A man shoots at two Power and Light workers who enter his yard. A 72-year old kills a door-to-door Adventist. In at least three other cases, someone shot a man who was either running away or walking away, and claimed it was because “I thought he was going to come back.”

Now that people have found out they can provoke a fight, and then plug someone, and get away with it, I predict people will be more trigger-happy, and there will be more tragedies, maybe even in Michigan.

Worse, a poorly-written law allows a person with murder on their mind to set up a situation where they would be “justified.” Imagine that someone wants to kill you. He goads you until you snap, then he pulls a gun and shoots you dead. And walks free, because he was “afraid for his life.” Poor little him.

In my opinion, lawmakers need to pay more attention to the issue of “provocation.” Someone who provokes an attack, knowing they are armed and the other person isn’t, is calculating on entering into an unequal contest, and they shouldn’t get off free.

One type of provocation is “assault,” which doesn’t mean actual physical contact. According to the law, an assault is an intentional act by one person that makes someone else afraid. If you punch someone in the nose, that’s “battery.” If you wave your fist around in such a way as to make the personthink you’re going to punch him, that’s “assault.” Assaults can also be verbal. Or actions such as trailing someone along a dark street. (Women may see this one quicker than men.)

The Michigan law doesn’t address provocation, but it’s implied: if someone “assaults” you, even verbally, it’s against the law. If you then take a swipe at them, and they shoot you in response, their original action was criminal, so they can’t claim self-defense.

After that, the jury would have to consider the thorny question of what’s “provocation.” After all, you can unwittingly provoke somebody by whistling the wrong tune. Waving a gun seems clear-cut, but what about stealing someone’s girlfriend? Laughing at someone’s hairdo?

As the law stands, you can laugh at someone with malice aforethought – with the full intention of goading them into attacking you, then shoot them and get away with it.

The intention of the self-defense laws was good, to allow truly innocent people to defend themselves. However, the FBI, the Stanford Law Review, and a study done at Texas A&M University study found that states that have a stand-your-ground law have seen an increase in raw homicide rates. The victims aren’t all bad guys, either. Ask the Florida man whose neighbor was acquitted after having shot him over how many trash bags he’d put at the curb. In that and similar cases, police and prosecutors have complained many, many times that they can’t prosecute murder and attempted-murder cases because of the Stand-Your-Ground law.

However, one word of warning: if you’re black and the person attacking you is white, the percentage of successful stand-your-ground defenses is very, very small. Post-racial society, anyone?

Cathy Lester grew up in the small town of Grayling, Michigan and taught English as a Foreign Language. She has lived in Alaska, Colombia, Iran, Singapore, Saudi Arabia and the U.K. Though retired from teaching, she is a free-lance writer





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