Sen. Schumer presses DOJ to probe ‘stand your ground’ laws

Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) is asking the Justice Department to expand its probe of the Trayvon Martin shooting to examine controversial “stand your ground” laws in Florida and other states.

Schumer, in comments Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” also said he’s hopeful there will be Capitol Hill hearings.

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“I am sending a letter to the Justice Department to ask them to expand their investigation into the general application of these 'stand your ground' laws, whether they actually increase, rather than decrease, violence, and whether they actually prevent law enforcement from prosecuting cases where a real crime has been committed,” said Schumer, a senior Democrat who serves on the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The late February shooting of Martin, an unarmed African American teenager, near Orlando has focused new attention on Florida’s 2005 “stand your ground” statute and similar laws enacted in many other states.

The Florida law allows a person attacked in a place where they have a “right to be” the license to “stand his or her ground” and use deadly force, rather than retreat, if they “reasonably” believe it's necessary to prevent death or serious harm.


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“This 'stand your ground' law is a whole new concept in our jurisprudence. It basically says if you fear great physical harm, you can shoot. Some people call it ‘shoot first, ask questions later,’” Schumer said.

Asked whether he would like to see Capitol Hill hearings on the laws, he replied: “I hope so. I think that we should examine these laws. They are all new. They have passed very, very quickly and I think the states who passed them, if they find out the real facts, may decide to repeal them.”


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Martin was killed by George Zimmerman, self-identified volunteer neighborhood watchman, on February 26 in Sanford, Fla. Zimmerman told police he was acting in self-defense. Martin was carrying only Skittles candies and a can of iced tea when he was shot.

Just prior to the shooting, Zimmerman called 911 to report what he said was suspicious behavior by Martin. Zimmerman then began to follow Martin, despite the emergency dispatcher telling him not to do so.


RELATED: Fla. Gov. Rick Scott: 'Justice will prevail' in Trayvon Martin case



Update: Sen. Schumer's office released his letter to the Justice Department at mid-day. Here is the text:

March 25, 2012

The Honorable Eric Holder
Attorney General
United States Department of Justice
950 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW

Washington, DC 20530-0001

Dear Attorney General Holder:

I write to request that the Department of Justice investigate whether “stand your ground laws,” such as Florida Statutes Section 776.012, are contributing to excessive and unnecessary use of deadly force. As you know, Section 776.012 has recently been cited in the unfortunate shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, who was killed while walking back to the house of his father's fiancée after a trip to a convenience store.

I am aware that the Civil Rights Division, the FBI, and the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Middle District of Florida are specifically investigating the Martin case. I am, however, asking that a broader investigation be conducted as to whether: 1) these laws are creating more violence than they are preventing; and 2) whether potential murders/manslaughters are going unprosecuted because these laws place unintended additional burdens on local police and prosecutors that encourage dismissals of otherwise problematic cases. There are approximately 23 states with laws that lessen the common law duty to retreat when a person is outside of their home.

In Florida, the number of justifiable homicides reported has skyrocketed since Section 776.012 went into effect.  In the five years before the law’s approval, Florida averaged 12 justifiable homicides a year, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. In the six years since, the average is 33. The “stand your grand law” has been invoked in many atypical cases, such as where a man sprayed a vehicle carrying a known gang member with 14 bullets and a 2011 case where a man was cleared after stabbing a man in the head with an ice pick during a road rage incident.

Moreover, many of these cases involve situations where the victim is unarmed. The Orlando Sentinel reports that after Section 776.012 was passed, in the following five months, there were at least 13 shootings in Central Florida where self-defense was claimed. Out of six men killed and four more wounded in the cases, only one was armed. Some Orlando-area police agencies have simply stopped investigating shootings involving self-defense claims and referred them directly to state prosecutors to decide. And many cases where a shooter is claiming the “stand your ground” defense are not prosecuted, because many prosecutors are afraid of wasting resources in cases where the likelihood of conviction is so uncertain.

Given your duty to protect the public, your unique nationwide jurisdiction to conduct an investigation, and your authority to allocate federal resources to state and local law enforcement, I believe that you are warranted and justified in conducting an investigation as to whether these “stand your ground laws” are contributing to excessive uses of force and decreased prosecutions for killings throughout the United States.  I therefore urge you to commence such an investigation at the earliest possible instance.

I thank you for your attention to this important matter, and am eager to work with you to ensure that the federal government is doing everything it can to protect the public.

Sincerely,
Charles E. Schumer
United States Senator


This story was updated at 12:20 p.m.