Think the George Zimmerman verdict couldn’t have happened under California law? Not necessarily. Florida may have a so-called “stand-your-ground” policy written into its laws, but it is possible that a California jury under very similar circumstances could have also handed down an acquittal.
KQED’s Joshua Johnson discussed California’s stand-your-ground defense with Professor Rory Little of the UC Hastings College of the Law. From that conversation, here are five things to know about how California handles stand-your-ground defenses:
1) Neither California’s constitution nor its statutes contains a stand-your-ground law. They have what’s known as a “castle doctrine” (California Penal Code Section 198.5), granting a justification for deadly force inside one’s residence. If someone forces his or her way into your home, and you have a “reasonable fear of imminent peril of death or great bodily injury,” then you would be justified in using deadly force to defend yourself.
2) Even though it’s not in the law, the California Criminal Jury Instructions (CALCRIM) do allow a jury to acquit someone based on a stand-your-ground defense. The instruction appears in CALCRIM #505 and #506, both of which deal with justifiable homicide:
“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/<insert forcible and atrocious crime>) has passed. This is so even if safety could have been achieved by retreating.”
So in California, not only could you stay and fight, you can even chase your attacker if it will neutralize the threat to your life.
3) California’s stand-your-ground defense as part of the justifiable homicide rules has several conditions. Aggressors are not eligible for this — you must be defending, not striking first. You, as a reasonable person, would have to believe the danger is imminent and not a threat at some time in the future. Also, you had to have believed that deadly force was necessary, and you had to have used just enough force to defend yourself. However, a defendant does not have to be correct about having actually been in danger. A jury can acquit if they think the defendant reasonably believed that mortal danger was truly there.
4) The legal precedents that established this jury instruction are very old: cases like People v. Hecker in 1895 and People v. Newcomer in 1897. Hecker says you may stand your ground if it’s safer than retreating, but Newcomer changed that by removing the need to retreat (or “fly,” as the ruling said). These precedents have been cited over and over, but the state has never actually settled the question of whether stand your ground is legal in the modern era.
“Over a hundred years ago, the California Supreme Court said, ‘no duty to retreat if you’re in your home,'” says UC Hastings Law Professor Rory Little. “‘We’re going to leave open whether there’s such a duty if you’re outside of the home.’ That little leaving-open has never been firmly answered by the California Supreme Court. They simply repeat the same broad language over and over again.”
5) To those assessing stand-your-ground laws based on the Zimmerman trial, some have complained that Zimmerman never actually invoked the law, even though it seems to have helped his acquittal. In California, as in Florida, a defense team does not have to actually invoke it: the judge is responsible for giving the jury this instruction on his or her own if the facts of the case warrant it.