THE BLOG

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Earl Ofari Hutchinson Headshot

Could a Trayvon Martin Happen in LA?

Posted: Updated:

It seems preposterous at first glance that anything like the drama, tragedy, and turmoil that roiled the nation for months during and after the Trayvon Martin killing could ever happen in Los Angeles. The surface reason for that is simple. Nothing remotely close to the stand your ground laws that were the hotly debated centerpiece of the Martin debacle and that provided a part of the legal backdrop for Martin shooter, George Zimmerman, to claim self-defense and walk, is on the books in California. Wrong.

California does have a well-established legal principle that resembles a stand your ground law. Here's how it works. If Zimmerman confronted Martin in Los Angeles under the exact same circumstances that he claimed in the trial and Martin attacked him as he claimed, he could claim the same rights as he did in Florida to use lethal force to protect himself. If his case came to trial, a judge would be obligated to instruct the jury that Zimmerman had no obligation to retreat and did have the right to counter the attack with force. This instruction amounts to a stand your ground and fight back right that the defendant would have. This is no different than the wording of the laws that is the central part of the stand your ground law on the books in Florida and more than two dozen other states.

The stand your ground legal right in California differs from the Florida law on only two counts. One is that in Florida the law is named as such and is part of that state's legal statute. That's not the case in California. The other is a question of legal and subjective interpretation. The rule of self-defense in California is that a person that feels that his life is in danger can use force to ward off an attacker based on the "reasonable person standard." To be more specific, the Judicial Council of California's criminal jury instructions simply say a defendant "is only entitled to use that amount of force that a reasonable person would believe is necessary in the same situation." Florida's stand your ground law uses wording that is not that much different when it says a person can use an amount of force that "the person reasonably believes" is necessary if they are in imminent danger of death or serious bodily harm. And here's the kicker: It also says that they've "exhausted" all other reasonable means to avoid injury or death.
But what does the wording of either one of these mean when someone is confronted by an attacker, and must fight back to avoid death or injury?

What the average person would have done or thinks should have been done to stop an attack is vague, amorphous, and wildly subject to subjective interpretation in that situation. Does that mean Zimmerman should have simply tried to as use MMA defense, body blows, kicks, or WWA moves, thrown dirt in Martin's face, or used any one of a number of other imaginable ways that someone could conceivably use to defend themselves against an assailant? In other words, used force short of whipping out his pistol and putting a slug in the assailant.

A prosecutor and a defense attorney for Zimmerman in a Los Angeles court would spend endless hours furiously battling over that point just as they did in the Sanford, Fla., courtroom. To say that there must be an "objective" measure of what is reasonable in California for a defendant to prevail in a stand and fight situation that results in death or serious injury to the alleged assailant is a stretch. The end result would be no different in a Los Angeles courtroom as it was in the Sanford courtroom; a jury would ultimately have to wrestle with what is reasonable use of force and thus justifiable as opposed to what is criminal and unjustifiable.

The certainty is that such a case in a Los Angeles courtroom would be under white hot media glare and would generate the same fierce debate locally and nationally as the Martin killing did in Florida. The ambiguity of what Zimmerman did and the force that he used under California laws that confer a stand and fight right would be brought into sharp public and legal focus. It would also do something else. It would force those California legislators that have made some soundings about the deadliness of Florida's and other state's stand your ground laws to look closer to home at California's statues on what is and what isn't considered justifiable self-defense. And then put some clarity to them before anything remotely close to a Zimmerman and Martin happens in our backyard.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst.