Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., has asked the U.S. Department of Justice to expand its investigation of the Trayvon Martin shooting to examine the controversial Stand Your Ground self-defense law in Florida and other states, statutes that he said are contributing to excessive and unnecessarily use of deadly force across the nation.
Schumer, a senior Democrat who serves on the Senate Judiciary Committee, expressed the sentiment during an appearance on CBS' Face the Nation on Sunday, adding the hopes to see Capitol Hill hearings on the matter as well.
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, Schumer said.
The death of 17-year-old Martin, an unarmed African American high school student who was gunned down by a self-identified neighborhood crime watchman, has put national spotlight on the self-defense law. Twenty-four states, including Florida, have adopted Stand your Ground laws, which grants a person attacked in a place where they have a right to be the license to use deadly force against a perpetrator if they reasonably believe it's necessary to prevent death or serious injury.
The law -- dubbed by opponents as Shoot First and Make My Day laws -- is an expansion of the so-called Castle Doctrine, a longtime statute allowing individuals to use reasonable force, including sometimes lethal force, against an attacker to protect themselves inside of their own home. Traditionally, people still have a duty to retreat from an attacker, if possible, when outside of the home -- with Stand Your Grand that duty to retreat is no longer enforced.
In Schumer's letter to the Justice Department, the senator writes it is warranted and justified for the agency to conduct an investigation into the law.
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, Schumer wrote.
Martin's shooting is already begin investigated by the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, the FBI and the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Middle District of Florida.
As of now, Florida lawmakers have refused to reconsider the state's Stand Your Ground law in the wake of Martin's death. Gov. Rick Scott, Republican, has largely been silent on the issue, directing the state's Department of Law Enforcement to investigate the tragedy even as he reiterates his own support for gun ownership.
Last week, the Florida Legislature's Senate President Mike Haridopolous rejected the formation of a special committee to review the state's Stand Your Ground law. In a statement, the senator said Gov. Scott is already taking all of the appropriate steps to address the tragic shooting of Trayvon Martin.
The following is the full text of Schumer's letter:
March 25, 2012
The Honorable Eric HolderAttorney GeneralUnited States Department of Justice950 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. SchumerUnited States Senator
Ashley covers U.S. politics for the International Business Times, with a focus on civil liberties, women's issues and campaign finance. Her work has also appeared in The...