Trayvon Martin, Self-Defense Law, Vigilantes


In Montana, as elsewhere, people are outraged at what the media portrayed as a vigilante style-killing of a 17-year old boy by a man who apparently enjoyed playing cop. Would George Zimmerman’s shooting of Trayvon Martin have been justified self-defense in Montana? What role would Montana’s stand-your-ground law play?

From the limited information that we have through the media at this point, I don’t think that Zimmermann would succeed in establishing justified use of force under Montana law. But there are a lot of questions that haven’t been answered yet. So it’s too early to draw any conclusions.

Let’s start with Montana’s general statute on justifiable use of potentially deadly force. That statute says

Use of force in defense of person. A person is justified in the use of force or threat to use force against another when and to the extent that the person reasonably believes that the conduct is necessary for self-defense or the defense of another against the other person’s imminent use of unlawful force. However, the person is justified in the use of force likely to cause death or serious bodily harm only if the person reasonably believes that the force is necessary to prevent imminent death or serious bodily harm to the person or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.” MCA 45-3-102 (2011) (Emphasis added)

This general statute must be read in conjunction with Montana’s version of the castle doctrine.  Montana extended the right-to-stand-your ground to any place that a person is lawfully in.  MCA 45-3-110 (2011)

Montana self-defense law says, “… a person who is lawfully in a place or location and who is threatened with bodily injury or loss of life has no duty to retreat from a threat or summon law enforcement assistance prior to using force.” See MCA 45-3-110 (2011) (Emphasis added)

Does that mean that any time you are not trespassing somewhere and you feel physically threatened by someone you are automatically justified to draw your gun and shoot him? No.

First, the Montana statute specifically limits the right to stand your ground to people who are not the initial aggressors.  Aggressors must still first try every reasonable means to escape rather than using physical force.  See, MCA 45-3-105 (2011)

From the information on the phone calls by both George Zimmerman to 911 and by Trayvon Martin to his girlfriend, it appears that at least initially, Zimmerman was following Martin. He apparently did so even after the 911 dispatcher had specifically told him not to do so.

While Zimmermann had no legal duty to follow the dispatcher’s instructions, this evidence goes to the issue who pursued whom and also to the issue of both men’s intent. So far, I’ve seen no information that Zimmerman expressed any fear of imminent injury to the dispatcher or to anyone else. But again, we don’t have all the evidence yet.

On the other hand, Trayvon Martin’s calls to his girlfriend indicate that he was being followed and that he felt threatened.  A person who threatens someone and causes him reasonable apprehension of physical injury commits an assault under Montana law.

So under Montana law, there might be a question if Zimmerman was the initial aggressor, in which case he would have had to seek every reasonable means to escape and could not rely on the stand-your-ground doctrine.

But let’s assume for the sake of argument that Zimmermann was not the initial aggressor. In that case, he did not have to try to escape or seek help from law enforcement first.  But could he establish justifiable use of force, arguing simply that he felt threatened by a 17-year old black kid that happened to walk through a neighborhood that had recently been burglarized? It depends on how objectively reasonable his belief of an imminent threat was.

The stand-your-ground statute doesn’t stand alone. It must be read in context with the rest of Montana’s Justifiable Use of Force law.  And under that law, you can use lethal force only when and to the extent that you reasonably believe it’s necessary to avoid imminent death or serious bodily injury to yourself or another or to avoid the commission of a “forcible felony.”

Zimmerman would need to show that his belief of being threatened with imminent serious bodily injury or death was objectively reasonable. So a subjective, racist belief that all young black kids in hoodies pose a physical threat obviously wouldn’t be enough.

So far, the information available in the news suggests that Martin might reasonably have believed that Zimmerman was threatening him, rather than the other way around. But again, media reports aren’t the same as comprehensive evidence. At this point, we don’t have all of the facts to make an informed decision.

The shooter also has to show that the shooting was necessary to avoid imminent injury. What exactly was the threat of bodily injury that Zimmerman perceived? His call to the 911 dispatcher doesn’t seem to suggest any fear of imminent serious bodily injury. He apparently followed the boy – not the reaction of a person who’s afraid of being seriously injured.

But the situation may have changed. Zimmerman apparently claims that he eventually began to return to his car and he might claim that Martin at some point turned towards him. We don’t know yet if Zimmerman might have claimed that he thought Martin was armed. Even a mistaken belief of a threat of imminent harm can be deemed  objectively reasonable if the totality of the evidence supports that conclusion.

Apparently, Zimmerman was bleeding and had some injuries to his head. Was he the aggressor and did Martin justifiably feel threatened and hit him in self-defense? Zimmerman probably claims that Martin became the aggressor. Statements by witnesses that heard possibly more than one shot and screams may contradict this claim.

What were the relative body weight and strength of Zimmerman and Martin? Who was yelling for help? Did these screams stop immediately after the shooting?

While Zimmerman may not have a had a duty to retreat under Montana law, from the information we have at this point, I think he might have a hard time establishing that his belief of imminent harm was objectively reasonable and that the shooting was necessary to avoid imminent harm. But we don’t have enough evidence yet to decide these issues.

In Montana, we had a case where a man shot an unarmed co-worker at a Billings Walmart. People quite often refer to this case as an outrageous example of  the stand-your-ground statute allowing someone to get away with shooting an unarmed man. But if you look at the evidence in that case, including medical records, your view might change. Mine did.

From a lawyer’s perspective, it will be interesting to see how the legal case develops.

From a personal, human point of view, Trayvon Martin’s death is a tragedy and it might be a sad example of how far we still have to go as a nation in overcoming  racism.  Let’s start in our own state in combatting overt and covert racial prejudice wherever we encounter it.

But equally important, let’s not pre-judge a man by media reports. That’s also a vigilante-style action.


This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. For legal questions, I recommend that you seek legal advice from an attorney licensed in your state.

Criminal law differs from state to state. Tribal and federal law may also apply. Even statutes that are similar in several states may be interpreted differently in each jurisdiction.

2 Comments on "Trayvon Martin, Self-Defense Law, Vigilantes"

  1. True, nothing has been determined yet, but a lot of unnecessary speculation has been stirred up – but that’s the media making their money without responsibility bothering them. This may be a case of a wannabe. A guy who wanted the power and authority of law enforcement and could not gain it through employment.

    There are those who act for their own safety and that of others with reasonable and measured response. Don’t know if you saw it, my brother just did this very thing. An intruder (later arrested for burglary of other residences) jumped into his backyard, just as he returned to his yard from the alley. An encounter ensued. According to what I saw on Facebook, my brother picked up an umbrella pole, hit the man on the head and legs and the intruder jumped the fence. My brother and another neighbor assisted the police in capturing him.

    Creating an encounter where there need be none, is always risky, seldom wise, often tragic. That’s what we do know for sure. There were many other choices. I hope we learn that.

  2. Lilie, you said it well. This is one valuable lesson that this tragedy should teach people:

    “Creating an encounter where there need be none, is always risky, seldom wise, often tragic.”

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