Legal expert: When to ‘stand your ground’


Lee’s note: This is the latest contribution from Michael Sheesley – a true expert – a practicing lawyer, FFL holder, firearms trainer and lethal force expert living on St. Thomas, USVI.


by Michael Sheesley, Esq.

The purpose of this article is not to throw gasoline on the burning flames of the debate over the Zimmerman verdict and the accompanying jockeying by seemingly every social, political and special interest group.  Instead I want to talk about the moral and ethical use of lethal force whenever the legal justification is present.

As a disclaimer, I do not practice law in the State of Florida, I am not admitted to practice law in the State of Florida and I do not instruct any firearms classes in the state of Florida.  Since this matter is current in the news I am using Florida’s law as an example to play out some

Michael Scheesley at Thunder Ranch. Photo courtesy Michael Scheesley

Michael Sheesley at Thunder Ranch. Photo courtesy Michael Sheesley

hypothetical situations.

As a general rule it is widely accepted, and I teach, that in order to use lethal force there must be an immediate, unavoidable, threat of death or great bodily harm to an innocent party.

The widely misquoted, mischaracterized and misinterpreted “stand your ground” law in the State of Florida states:

“A person who is not engaged in an unlawful activity and who is attacked in any other place where he or she has a right to be has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.” Title XLVI Florida Statues s.776.013(3)

What this portion of the Justifiable Use of Force statute does is remove the requirement to retreat from an attack if the individual is lawfully in a place in the State of Florida.  All the other elements must be present in order to use lethal force.  My belief in why this was not “used as a defense” in the Zimmerman trial is that there was no evidence presented by the prosecution that Mr. Zimmerman had the opportunity to retreat once the altercation ensued.

Examples of the law in the State of Florida and how it modifies the above generally accepted principle can be explained in two scenarios:

First, the “stand your ground” scenario.  You are walking in a public park.  A man approaches you holding a baseball bat and begins to threaten you saying he is going to “Beat you to a bloody pulp.”  You are under no duty to attempt to run away or avoid the situation.  Should the man raise the bat you can meet force with force.  In this scenario you would be justified in using lethal force.

A variation on this scenario is that you are walking in a public park and you notice a man holding a woman on the ground, ripping her clothes off and screaming that he is going to rape her.  You are legally justified in using force, including deadly force to stop the woman from getting raped.

Let’s examine the legal justifications in these two situations where the “stand your ground” portion of the Justifiable Use of Force is applicable.  In both situations there is clearly an immediate, threat of death or great bodily harm to an innocent party.  In both situations you are under no legal duty to retreat from the situation.  What about morally and ethically?

Morals and ethics are extremely personal, what works for me may not work for you.  Circumstances and situations dictate actions and responses.

In the first instance if I had the chance to escape the situation I would likely do so given the right circumstances.  If the park were generally empty and I did not have a reasonable fear that the crazed person with the bat would channel his aggression towards someone else I would just leave.  Morally and ethically I would be comfortable that there was a high likelihood no one else would get hurt and my actions prevented me from using lethal force.  I would call the proper law enforcement authorities and allow them to handle the situation.  If however the park was crowded and I felt that there was a likelihood that the aggressor’s behavior would be directed to another innocent person without the ability to defend themselves I would likely exercise my legal right to use force, up to and including deadly force.

Now the second instance of the woman facing an imminent and forcible felony, namely rape.  I would be legally justified in using deadly force to stop the commission of the rape.  Am I under a moral or ethical obligation to stop the rape?  This is a personal question.  I would undoubtedly step in and exercise my legal right to defend another as long as doing so would not put me in greater danger of my own life.  As a layperson I don’t believe (remember the disclaimer) that I have any legal duty to intervene in the State of Florida.  I legally could just stand there and watch.

In many jurisdictions if I exercise my legal right to use lethal force in either of the above situations I potentially can face civil liability.  The general rule is that if you interject yourself into a situation you can be civilly liable for harm that results from your actions if they are negligent.  What if I fire a shot at the guy with the baseball bat and kill a 10 year old child?  I will be willing to bet that I will be facing a wrongful death suit from the parents of that child.  What if I attempt to stop the rapist and end up injuring the woman that was being attacked?  I would wager that a personal injury lawyer could be found very quickly that would sue me for everything that I own.  Knowing this may affect the standards of behavior concerning your individual actions.

A person in the State of Florida additionally has no duty to retreat from their dwelling, residence or occupied vehicle.  In fact if a person is in their dwelling, residence or occupied vehicle and another is unlawfully and forcefully entering any of those places, and the person knows that the other is unlawfully entering those places, the person is presumed to have held a reasonable fear of imminent peril of death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another when using defensive force that is intended or likely to cause death or great bodily harm to another. Title XLVI Florida Statues s.776.013(1).

Given this portion of the statute consider you are home in the evening watching television.  You hear a loud noise, the front door flies open and a two young men burst through the door.  Under Florida law you are under no duty to retreat from your home.  Under Florida law you are also presumed to hold a reasonable fear of imminent peril of death or great bodily harm to yourself.  Legally you are justified to respond to the intruders using deadly force.

Using the above facts imagine I reside alone in a planned development where all the houses look substantially similar and it is the day before Thanksgiving.  Where I am from the Wednesday before Thanksgiving is a time where many young men and women return home from their various colleges or residences in other cities and meet their old high school friends out for a night at the local bars.

Given this factual situation morally and ethically I would choose to identify who the individuals were and to the extent possible what their intentions were.  As it turns out these were two intoxicated brothers who mistook my house for their own after a night of drinking with friends.  It would be tough for me to live with using lethal force against individuals who made a mistake and meant me no harm.  However I would have been well within my legal right to do so.

Next imagine that I reside with my family in a lone house set squarely in the middle of a half acre lot enclosed by a chain link fence.  There has been a rash of burglaries and home invasions in the area.  2:00 A.M. a loud crash downstairs and as I descend the stairs with a flashlight and my weapon I see a man rapidly ascending the stairs towards me.  I illuminate the intruder and command him to stop.  The intruder advances.

In this factual situation I would be comfortable in using lethal force with no further questions asked.  Legally I would be within my rights.

The point is that it is not only important to know what the laws are within the particular state or jurisdiction where you are present but also to think through various situations given your personal morals and ethics.

Michael Sheesley is a practicing attorney, a firearms instructor and a partner in Virgin Arms, a FFL holder serving the law enforcement and civilian community in the U.S. Virgin Islands.  Mr. Sheesley regularly deals with criminal matters involving the use of lethal force and is a consultant to expert witnesses.  Mr. Sheesley is a member of the International Association of Law Enforcement Firearms Instructors and the International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association. He can be contacted at:


About Author

Lee Williams can’t remember a time in his life when he wasn’t shooting. Before becoming a journalist, Lee served in the Army and worked as a police officer. He’s earned more than a dozen journalism awards as a reporter, and three medals of valor as a cop. He is an NRA-certified law enforcement firearms instructor, an avid tactical shooter and a training junkie. When he’s not busy as a senior investigative reporter, he is usually shooting his AKs, XDs and CZs. If you don’t run into him at a local gun range, you can reach him at 941.284.8553, by email, or by regular mail to 1777 Main St., Sarasota, FL 34236. You can follow him on Twitter: @HT_GunWriter and on Facebook @The Gun Writer.

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