Jim Baer: Florida case illustrates how ‘stand your ground’ can go horribly wrong

  • Curtis Reeves (left), who is accused of shooting a man in a movie theater in a “stand your ground” case, listens during his hearing at the Robert D. Sumner Judicial Center in Dade City, Fla., on Feb. 28, 2017. AP

For the Monitor
Published: 3/24/2018 12:20:09 AM

In our litigious and politically divided society, we are too often treated to tragic and sad news about confrontations between individuals who claim to be exercising their constitutional rights. Anger management and the daily stress of dealing with a society absorbed with ego driven self interests can cause some people to snap. We have lost the arts of compromise and civility and a simple disagreement can ignite into a combustible tragedy.

The following hypothetical saga can easily be imagined in any place of public accommodation in America.

It is a busy Friday evening at the local cinema and it is close to full capacity. The film is about to begin and the auditorium lighting has been dimmed. A tall man has arrived late and is trying to find a seat in the dark. He is aware of his height and tries to locate a seat in the rear of the theater where his height will not be an issue. None are available. He then locates a lonely aisle seat mid-way down the center aisle. The aisle seat will allow him to extend his long legs to be comfortable.

He has adjusted himself into his seat when the father of a family seated behind him taps him on the shoulder. “Would you mind moving to another seat? My family cannot see the screen because you are so tall.” The tall man politely replies, “I tried but none are available.”

Things then begin to take a turn for the worse. The family man once more confronts the seated man. “Find another seat pal or I am calling security.” The tall man replies, “I bought a ticket and I have the right to sit in any seat in this theater.” The father replies, “I have asked you once politely to move and I won’t ask you again.” The seated man does not respond. The angry father, a robust man, then gets up and grabs the seated man by the coat and tries to force him to move, shouting in the tall man’s face: “Hey pal, I also paid to bring my family here to have a good time.” At this point, the tall man, feeling threatened, stands his ground and produces a legally concealed handgun and sticks it in the chest of the father.

I’II end this hypothetical but plausible story at this point. Sometimes reality is stranger than fiction. A similar event happened in a movie theater in Florida in January 2014. A retired Tampa police captain is accused of shooting a man to death and critically injuring the dead man’s wife over cell phone texting and popcorn. The accused man apparently believed that popcorn was a threat to his life. He shot the man who threw popcorn at him and then claimed self defense. He pleaded not guilty. He used the “stand your ground” defense in court. He expressed regret at his preliminary hearing. The judge in that case threw out the stand-your-ground defense plea. The defendant is currently out on bond, confined to his home and limited to travel only to his doctor and church. The State of Florida v Curtis Reeves second-degree murder case has not gone to trial.

The stand-your-ground ethos is grounded in old English and European common law. Its foundation is in the Castle Doctrine, where a home is considered a person’s castle and the homeowner is under no obligation to retreat when faced with danger. Contemporary interpretation of stand-your-ground philosophy has encouraged 28 state legislatures, including New Hampshire, to enact stand-your-ground laws. Eight other states use stand your ground as a practical policy.

The results of stand-your-ground legislation are mixed. It all depends on whose ox is being gored. Reputable and respected government policy advocates have wide disparities in opinions on how to interpret the effect of such legislation on crime rates, including homicides. Some research data claims that stand-your-ground defense pleas have little effect on homicide or violent crime rates while others contend that stand-your-ground laws encourage people to shoot first and ask questions later. Stand-your-ground laws have only a small positive effect on the deterrence of crime, according to some social scientists.

It’s feel-good legislation designed to placate a frightened populous that is encouraged by some politicians and social media into believing that there is a nefarious army of “bad hombres” who will use any opportunity to slit your throat and steal your purse. That is not true, especially here in New Hampshire. A person here is more likely to be assaulted, injured or murdered in a domestic dispute with someone they know than with a stranger burglarizing their home.

Pretending that you are John Wayne or Dirty Harry is a foolish response when you are offended by someone who throws popcorn at you. Calm down, resist that adrenaline rush and do not overreact. It’s only popcorn. You may live to see another day – and not through a prison cell window.

(Jim Baer lives in Concord.)




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