Robin Fuson
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When Is Self-Defense Justified?

Criminal Defense

Self-defense is accepted almost everywhere as a legal defense against a serious criminal charge. However, the precise rules governing self-defense vary from nation to nation, and in the U.S., from state to state. How does Florida define self-defense? If you are accused of a crime in this state, how can you prove that you acted in self-defense? Keep reading, because everyone in Florida needs to know these answers.

The first thing to know is that if you are charged with a crime in Florida, and you believe that you are innocent of the charge because you were acting in self-defense, you’ll need a knowledgeable defense lawyer advocating on your behalf – right away. In the state of Florida, you’ll need to reach out to an experienced Tampa criminal defense attorney.

Self-defense is when you act to prevent someone from hurting you – or others – through the use of sufficient force. It seems simple enough, but when an incident happens where self-defense is invoked, there are usually more questions than answers. How much force is too much to qualify as self-defense? What if someone reasonably believes that he or she is being threatened – but isn’t – and takes defensive action anyway?

WHEN IS THE USE OF FORCE OR LEGAL SELF-DEFENSE WEAPONS ALLOWED?

Self-defense and the laws that define and govern it are a lot more complicated than most people may think. To deal with the many different types of circumstances where a self-defense claim may arise, lawmakers have established rules that spell out when self-defense is legitimate and how much force can be used to accomplish self-defense.

As a general principle, the use of force to accomplish self-defense is allowed by law only when the threat is immediate. However, verbal intimidation or aggressiveness that is not accompanied by a plausible threat of immediate physical harm does not justify the use of force. When the threat has passed or ended, force is no longer legally justifiable.

Historically, the use of force in the act of self-defense was considered a final resort. Anyone being threatened had a “duty to retreat” or to attempt to avoid the use of force. While most states have removed this requirement when the force used is non-lethal, the duty to retreat – and to attempt to avoid the use of lethal force – is still the law in a number of states.

WHAT IS THE “STAND YOUR GROUND” LAW?

As you may know, however, other states – including the state of Florida – have a “stand your ground” law that removes the duty to retreat and allows for the use of force in self-defense, even if the party claiming self-defense made no effort to retreat from the situation or to avoid a violent incident. Florida’s controversial stand your ground law took effect in 2005.

Prior to that year, you could not use lethal force in self-defense in this state without first using every reasonable means to retreat from the threat. Today, you are justified to use lethal force in self-defense in Florida, and you have no duty to retreat, provided that you reasonably believe that lethal force is required to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to yourself or to another person.

In other words, in all situations in Florida where you are engaged in a lawful activity and you are lawfully present (that is, not trespassing), you do not owe an attacker a duty to retreat. You may stand your ground and even resort to lethal force if you reasonably believe that such force is required to avoid death or great bodily harm.

WHY WAS GEORGE ZIMMERMAN ACQUITTED OF SECOND-DEGREE MURDER?

Florida’s stand your ground law gained national attention – and generated plenty of controversy – back in 2013 when George Zimmerman was acquitted of second-degree murder in the shooting of Trayvon Martin. The judge instructed the jurors that Zimmerman had no duty to retreat and that he had a legal right to stand his ground and use deadly force if he reasonably believed that doing so was necessary.

In response to the Trayvon Martin shooting, Florida Governor Rick Scott commissioned a 19-member task force to review Florida’s stand your ground statute. After holding public hearings across the state and considering more than 11,000 comments from the public, the task force recommended against repealing Florida’s stand your ground law.

Florida’s stand your ground law not only eliminates any duty to retreat, but it also gives even more protection to occupants of residences, dwellings, and vehicles. When an unlawful entry has happened or is in progress, Florida law in most cases presumes that the use of deadly force by an occupant of the residence, dwelling, or vehicle was undertaken with the legally necessary “reasonable fear of imminent death or great bodily harm.”

WHAT ELSE SHOULD FLORIDIANS KNOW ABOUT SELF-DEFENSE?

Floridians should understand that the stand your ground law is not a license to kill. The force used in self-defense must match the level of the threat. You may use only the force required to remove the threat. If the threat involves lethal force, someone acting in self-defense may use lethal force, but if the threat involves only minor force, a disproportionate overreaction will not qualify as self-defense.

But even in the states that still impose a duty to retreat, in most cases, residents may use lethal force against an invader who unlawfully enters a residence. Lawyers and judges call this principle “the castle doctrine,” but its precise application varies from state to state and hinges on the specific facts of each case.

Tampa criminal defense attorney Robin Fuson summarizes what Floridians need to know about self-defense: “Non-deadly self defense can be used when you believe you or someone else is in danger of being hurt with less than serious consequences. If someone attempts to hit you, you may defend yourself. If you believe you or someone else is about to be the victim of a forcible felony, or in danger of serious bodily injury, you may use deadly force in defense.”

Attorney Fuson adds: “Florida also allows you to stand your ground in situations involving the threat of serious bodily injury, or death.” But he also advises that a “good home defense system involving firearms would incorporate a weapon light (a small toggle flashlight attached to the firearm) so that potential intruders can be identified. There are too many cases of people going into the wrong home while drunk and staying with a neighbor to not warrant such a precaution.”

If you are charged with a crime in Florida, and if you believe that you are innocent because you were acting in self-defense, you must be represented by an experienced Tampa criminal defense attorney who routinely defends clients against serious criminal charges like homicide and aggravated battery. Don’t try to explain anything to the police, because anything you say could be used against you in a court of law.

Instead, insist – politely – on your right to remain silent and your right to have an attorney present during any questioning or interrogation. Yes, self-defense is your right in Florida, and the law lets you “stand your ground,” but if you injure or kill someone when you act in self-defense, you may still be charged with a crime, and you will very much need an experienced defense attorney’s help.

Robin Fuson
By Robin Fuson