ATLANTA (CN) – The Rainbow PUSH Coalition sued Georgia’s governor and attorney general, claiming the state’s “Stand Your Ground” law “created a perfect storm for arbitrary killings with no recourse,” and discriminates against minorities.
Three individuals joined the Coalition as plaintiffs:
1) the parents of the late James Johnson III, a black man who was shot to death by a white man carrying a concealed gun, in a dispute involving Johnson’s white girlfriend. The killer, Adam Lee Edmondson, invoked the “stand your ground” law and the jury found him not guilty of murder, according to the lawsuit;
2) Herman Smith, a black man who killed another black man, allegedly in self-defense, but was convicted of felony murder despite invoking the “stand your ground” law, and was sentenced to life plus 10 years in prison.
Named as defendants are Gov. Nathan Deal and Attorney General Samuel Olens.
Georgia’s Senate Bill 396 took effect on July 1, 2006, after then-Gov. Sonny Perdue signed it in April that year. It allows Georgians to use deadly force to defend themselves, other persons or property based on a “reasonable belief” that such force is necessary to prevent death, bodily injury or a forcible felony.
Previously, Georgia allowed only “victims of a crime” to use deadly force.
The Rainbow PUSH Coalition claims SB 396 created “an expansive and overly broad right to self-defense” and is being enforced arbitrarily with racial and social bias.
“If allowed to continue in effect, SB 396 will significantly harm Georgians, and particularly Georgians of color, for at least three reasons, the lawsuit states:
“First, SB 396 has and will subject Georgians to uneven and arbitrary application of the law. All Georgians, and particularly those of color, will be compelled to at all times prove that they are not taking part in any action which may lead an individual to form a ‘reasonable belief’ that they are posing a threat to them. Actions which individuals have claimed caused them to form a ‘reasonable belief’ have included playing loud music in a vehicle, pulling into the wrong driveway or, in another state, walking home with a bag of Skittles and ice tea. This is because SB 396 makes individuals who are perceived by society to be predisposed to violence presumptively a threat and therefore require a lower level of justification to use deadly force against. This law incorporates these societal prejudices and predispositions into Georgia criminal procedures.
“Second, SB 396 will cause countless Georgians – specifically Georgians of color – to be erroneously deprived of the benefits of the Stand Your Ground law. These same societal presumptions have prevented many Georgians from availing themselves of this defense. Simply put, it is highly unlikely that an average 25-year-old African American male will be able to invoke the defense that he held a ‘reasonable belief’ that an 80-year-old unarmed white female posed a threat to him and justified the use of deadly force against her.
“Criminal laws are not supposed to make distinctions between individuals based on their race, sex, age or other factors. There cannot be one speed limit for young black males and a different speed limit for older white females. Similarly, there cannot be a divergent Stand Your Ground standard for individuals based on the same. These deprivations will force individuals to risk felonious assault or death out of fear that invoking Stand Your Ground will result in prosecution.
“Third, SB 396 interferes with the core doctrine of self-defense as a defense of last resort. Instead, Stand Your Ground allows an individual the shoot first as a preventative measure. By eliminating the duty to retreat and using the ‘reasonable belief’ standard, Georgia has created a perfect storm for arbitrary killings with no recourse and a lack of faith in the law within the people of Georgia.”
The coalition claims the law allows people to use deadly force with little or no provocation, and transforms police officers into judges and juries who must determine whether to arrest those who claims a stand-your-ground defense.
The Rainbow PUSH Coalition, formed in 1996 through the merging of two organizations the Rev. Jesse Jackson founded, claims the law affects it by forcing it to divert resources from its usual activities.
The plaintiffs claim the law is unconstitutionally vague because it does not define what actions or circumstances constitute “reasonable” fear justifying use of deadly force.
What’s more, the plaintiffs say, people facing circumstances where deadly force may be needed find out if their use of force was legal only afterward.
“Section 1 effectively requires all persons in Georgia to ‘guess’ if the action which they are taking will fall within what others believe to be reasonable,” the complaint states. “It is beyond question that we would not require individuals to guess the speed limit. There is no law which says individuals are allowed to go the speed which they ‘reasonably believe’ is correct and prudent. But in a far more serious context we are leaving the lives of Georgians up to chance.”
The coalition claims the law creates a second class of citizens in Georgia by denying most felons the right to use a gun to defend themselves and their families.
Stand-your-ground forbids people who are barred from possessing weapons to use a gun for self-defense.
The plaintiffs seek to represent all Georgians who may be prosecuted despite invoking stand-your-ground, based on their race or national origin, or who will be killed by people invoking self-defense under the law.
They seek class certification and want the law enjoined as unconstitutional.
They are represented by Robert Patillo II and Janice Mathis.
Asked for comment, a spokeswoman for Gov. Deal said it was “a matter for the attorney general’s office.”
Attorney General Olens’ Office declined to comment Wednesday.
Stand-your-ground laws, which exist in more than 20 states, came under fire after the 2012 death of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fla. George Zimmerman, the Neighborhood Watch guard who shot Martin to death, was acquitted of second-degree murder and manslaughter under Florida’s stand-your-ground law.
Though the Atlanta lawsuit cites Martin’s case, lead attorney Patillo said the Rainbow PUSH Coalition began preparing its challenge before his death.
Patillo told Reuters he believed the coalition’s legal challenge was the only pending federal lawsuit in the country against a state stand-your-ground law.
Last month, Trayvon Martin’s mother urged a U.S. Senate panel to help rescind stand-your-ground laws in the states that have passed them, starting with Florida in 2005. The laws go a step further from the so-called “castle doctrine,” by removing requirements to retreat from danger outside one’s home.
“The person that shot and killed my son is walking the streets today, and this law does not work” Martin’s mother Sybrina Fulton told the Senate Judiciary Committee.
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