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Washington one of 31 states with a ‘Stand your ground’ law

June 26, 2012

In all the furor over Florida's "Stand your ground" law and the role it played in the death of Trayvon Martin, many Washingtonians don't realize this is one of 31 states that has a similar law on the books.

If and when the well-publicized Trayvon Martin second-degree murder case comes to trial in Florida, the outcome will hinge largely on Florida’s controversial “Stand Your Ground” law, which empowers a crime victim to respond with lethal force if he or she believes their life is in imminent danger.

What Washingtonians may not realize, however, is that this is one of 31 U.S. states with a similar – though perhaps more limited – law on its books.

Washington’s Stand Your Ground defense, which is based on a State Supreme Court rather than a bill passed by the Legislature, specifically states that a person does not have a duty to retreat when faced with a felony threat or the threat of violence.

Gun rights advocate Dave Redmond, writing in the Washington State Examiner , notes, “Washington’s Supreme Court has already held, in State v. Reynaldo Redmond, that ‘The law is well settled that there is no duty to retreat when a person is assaulted in a place where he or she has a right to be.’ Thus, the Evergreen State is already a ‘stand-your-ground’ jurisdiction, but does not have an actual ‘stand-your-ground’ statute.”

The law is this state’s equivalent to the Castle Doctrine, which has been in place since the mid-1970s. Under the Castle doctrine, a victim has no duty to retreat when their home is attacked.

Where the law differs from state to state is in how willing each is to extend that right beyond the confines of one’s home.

The determining factor is that victim must feel they’re in imminent danger – whether that danger exists in fact or not. In the Florida case, for example, it’s not necessarily relevant that teenager Trayvon Martin ultimately proved to be unarmed; what matters is whether his killer, George Zimmerman, perceived a credible threat.

Washington’s version of the law, analysts say, is already fairly forgiving in that it places the burden of proof on the state, not the defense.  The state has to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the shooter is not acting in self-defense, and the jury is instructed to view the case from the defendant’s eyes.

Even so, the law in Washington doesn’t make entirely clear whether the right to defend one’s self extends beyond the home. Consequently, a group of Republican lawmakers last year proposed an amendment to the law, Senate Bill 5418, which was re-introduced in November when the Legislature re-convened for a special session.

The bill, which ultimately died in committee, would have amended this state’s self-defense statute, adding language that would make it a true “Castle Doctrine” law, unlike “stand-your-ground” statutes in other states that are erroneously referred to as “Castle Doctrine.”

SB-5418 emphasized that the act of unlawfully entering someone’s home, place of business or even a vehicle by definition poses a genuine threat that can be met with deadly force.

The bill’s new language stated that a person is presumed to have held a reasonable fear of imminent peril of death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another person when using deadly force pursuant to RCW 9A.16.050(1)(c) if:

  • the person against whom the deadly force was used was in the process of unlawfully and forcefully entering or had unlawfully and forcibly entered a dwelling, residence, other place of abode, or occupied vehicle, or if that person had removed or was attempting to remove another against that person’s will from a dwelling, residence, other place of abode, or occupied vehicle; and,
  • the person who uses deadly force knew or had reason to believe that an unlawful and forcible entry or unlawful and forcible act was occurring or had occurred.

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