.357 magnum revolver
A Smith & Wesson .357 magnum revolver is displayed at the Los Angeles Gun Club. (Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

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.

5 Things To Know About ‘Stand Your Ground’ In California 22 July,2013Joshua Johnson

  • 4TruthandJustice

    Journalist J. Johnson was given or took on a monumental task when he wrote about “Stand Your Ground” law – that’s one reason why he chose to compare only Cal. with the Fla. version. Most states have such statutes on their books. But there are many variations. Hence, by force, the reductionism.

    It’s misleading I think to talk about the age of Cal.’s Stand Your Ground statute. Reason: in many states (I know in Mich.) the Stand Your Ground statute was a pent up reaction to the requirement to flee. See, it’s cause and reaction, not the way Mr. Johnson suggests at all. Many people were injured and died while trying to flee. Many others became convicted criminals because they reacted with “fight” rather than “flight.” The predator (or attacker) vs prey (or defender) relationship is obvious: the person forced into the position of a fleeing prey animal is going to lose. They and their lives are REDUCED in value and rights, not enhanced nor are they “enlightened.”

    The other common accompaniment to Stand Your Ground is the law prohibiting families and friends of a dead attacker from suing the defender. You see in the Zimmerman case much talk about the family of Martin suing Zimmerman. Probably that’s prohibited and for good reason: when it was possible to do so, it amounted to adding advantage to the attacker or the attacker’s surviving family. Public outrage against such things as an injured attacker who survived suing the defender and WINNING – forced legislators to recognize that such suits amounted to a second more effectively devastating attack on the defender.

  • ConfusedByMisrepresentedCase

    interestingly, Stand Your Ground did not apply in the Zimmerman case. It was not part of the defense, nor was it brought up as part of the prosecution. It has no relevance to anything. The Zimmerman case was purely about self defense. He was on his back and unable to retreat, even if he wanted to. All the evidence in the case supports this. The shooting was purely self defense. All the discussion around stand your ground is laughable and clearly the media trying to stir things up.

  • Wolverine

    If anyone was “Standing his ground” in the Zimmerman case, it was Trayvon. As pointed in the trial, he had over 4 minutes to go to his nearby home.

  • J.johnson

    I was on a jury a few years ago in contra costa county in which the defendant, a private citizen, had used a legally-licensed handgun to defend himself and his family from “imminent threat” of violence against him. No one was injured or killed in the incident, but the gun was fired a couple times. In reading the details of the statutes given to the jury for this case, it is clear that the CA law provides for self-defense using reasonable or equal force against the threat. I’m sure most states have this sort of thing. So the questions we had to determine were: did the defendant have reason to believe his or his family’s lives were in danger, and was the use of a small handgun reasonable or equal force against this danger in order counteract (or really, to pre-empt) the potential of bodily harm to his self or family. In the end, the jury decided that there was enough circumstantial and historical evidence between the defendant and the party who posed the threat that, yes, the use of the small handgun was warranted, and we let the guy off. It was pretty clear based on recent history that the guy would have been beaten to a pulp or worse if he hadn’t pulled the gun.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a huge gun advocate, but in reading the law, it seems to provide cover this sort of scenario, although I do wonder what would have happened if the defendant had killed someone during the incident. It’s ultimately up to the prosecution to prove that the use of the gun was illegal — ie unwarranted due to excessive force or unnecessary because there really was no threat. I suppose the TM jury was given the same advice my jury was, and perhaps came to the same conclusion.

  • CenterStage

    Center Stage, has done it again. On Friday night, the host came to the internet airwaves to engage in a critical discussion about the controversial “Stand Your Ground” Law and its relevance to the Trayvon Martin case and the Florida v. Zimmerman verdict with the topic: “Stand Your Ground Law: Self-Defense or License to Kill.” With a panel of three criminal attorneys from Florida and a sociology professor, she was able to engage the audience in topics that ranged from reform or repeal, the application of the law, flaws in the law, the importance of jury selection, race and the law, and a deep discussion about the Zimmerman verdict. Insightful, informative, and an incredible discussion!!! If you missed it live, you have the chance to be there now.”

    “Stand Your Ground Laws: Self-Defense or License to Kill,” a must hear podcast!!!


  • Rebecca Maher

    What was Martin going to do? Beat Zimmerman with his bag of skittles? Zimmerman is significantly larger than Martin and could have beat him up rather than kill him. I do not see how killing him was necessary force. I still think that if Martin had been a privileged white kid, the outcome would have been very different. We don’t want to use the race card, but let’s call a spade a spade…


Joshua Johnson

Joshua Johnson is the creator and host of Truth Be Told, a special series on race from KQED and PRI. Prior to creating the show, he served as the station’s morning news anchor for five-and-half years.

Prior to joining KQED, Joshua spent six years as an anchor/reporter for WLRN Miami Herald News. He’s a native of South Florida, with degrees from the University of Miami. His reporting and newscasting have won awards from the Radio Television Digital News Association and from the National Association of Black Journalists. Joshua is also active in his union, SAG-AFTRA. He lives in San Francisco.

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