Jan 092017
Owen Courrèges

Owen Courrèges

Victoria Coy, the executive director of the Louisiana Violence Reduction Coalition, went on a bit of a tear this past week over Louisiana’s so-called “Stand Your Ground” (SYG) law. In an opinion piece written for The Lens, Coy made claims that, if true, would indeed be quite disturbing:

  • Stand Your Ground was tacked on to Louisiana’s Justifiable Homicide rules in 2006, upending centuries of common-sense definitions of self-defense.”
  • Under the revamped rules, you no longer have the duty to retreat from a threat before using lethal force. You need only ‘perceive’ a threat in order to justify meeting force with force — even if you could easily escape that threat.”
  • Stand Your Ground has codified prejudice. . . . If black men are the scary ones, then why should they be afraid? It’s this exact logic that is not only encouraged, but required under the disastrous Stand Your Ground law.”

My, that does sound unsettling. Of course, it’s also utter nonsense. Coy’s claims betray ignorance of the law; ostensibly, she could not be bothered with performing the most cursory research into the history of Louisiana law relative to SYG.

First of all, it is simply not the case that SYG “upended” Louisiana law regarding justification. Unlike all other states, Louisiana is a civil law jurisdiction. Accordingly, Louisiana law never encompassed the old common law “duty to retreat.”

The Supreme Court laid out the Louisiana rule starkly in the case of State v. Simon, 131 La. 520, 532 (La. 1912), upholding a jury charge that said “[i]f a man who is not at fault is suddenly assaulted by another, who intends to kill him or to inflict on him great bodily harm, he is not bound to retreat at all, but he may stand his ground and kill his assailant if there is reasonable, apparent necessity for so doing to save his life or to protect his person.”

Thus, Louisiana’s traditional self-defense law clearly and unequivocally rejected any notion of a duty of retreat. Yet despite the foregoing, many court subsequent decisions included consideration of the possibility of retreat in determining whether there was reasonable necessity for the use of deadly force. The 2006 SYG law remedied that, declaring that there could be no consideration of retreat.

Hence, Coy was incorrect that Louisiana’s SYG law was some earth-shattering change. If anything, it restored Louisiana’s traditional self-defense laws.

Where Coy’s piece really goes off the rails, however, is in arguing that Louisiana’s SYG law amounts to an endorsement of personal prejudice. First, SYG did not change the standard for the use of deadly force in self-defense; it was and remains that the individual claiming justification “reasonably believe[d] that he [was] in imminent danger of losing his life.” The only change was that juries would no longer be permitted (or asked to) to consider the possibility of retreat, and that has nothing to do with race.

Secondly, the standard for justification – a reasonable belief of imminent death from an attack – is not a subjective one. It is hornbook law that the use of the word “reasonably” connotes an objective standard. It is not subservient to personal prejudice.

The question posed to the jury is not whether the person claiming self-defense was possessed of some prejudice, bias, or personal phobia that led them to feel threatened. Rather, the question is whether a hypothetical, “reasonable person” under similar circumstances would have believed that their life was in imminent danger.

Obviously, a “reasonable person” is not a vile racist.

Besides, the claim that SYG laws somehow promote racism or disadvantage racial minorities is belied by the facts. In Florida, where the first SYG law was passed, studies have shown that black defendants are some of the biggest beneficiaries –both more likely to invoke SYG and to be acquitted as a result. Presumably, Louisiana’s experience has been similar.

The debate over self-defense law needs to be based on actual facts, not hysterics. Characterizing SYG laws as some radical departure that devalues peoples’ lives based on race may make for juicy propaganda, but it’s wrong. There’s no retreating from that.

Owen Courrèges, a New Orleans attorney and resident of the Garden District, offers his opinions for UptownMessenger.com on Mondays. He has previously written for the Reason Public Policy Foundation.

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