the law is a ass

An online friend made an interesting comment yesterday. Patrick is an intelligent guy–he’s no wide-eyed innocent, he’s been alive long enough to know how the world works and he’s traveled widely enough to see it works differently in different places. His comment about the Trayvon Martin case is astute and it would have made perfect sense, except for one thing: this took place in Florida. Here’s what Patrick said

I really don’t understand how this isn’t so clearly seen as what it is… a failure to investigate.

What also is striking about this is that Zimmerman was simply taken at his word. Had the dead boy been a white kid, Zimmerman probably would have been held until all evidence was in. But, of course, had the boy been white, it’s likely this never would have happened.

As I said, Patrick is an intelligent guy, but he’s making a mistake that a LOT of intelligent people are making. He’s assuming the police either fucked up or didn’t care enough to investigate.

The problem as I see it is less about the Sanford Police Department and more about the law. The police must have probable cause to believe a crime has been committed before they’re allowed to conduct an actual investigation. In the U.S., citizens have always had the right to use lethal force to defend themselves and their homes. If the police arrived at your home and found a dead body on your lawn, they’d be legally allowed (even required) to ask you questions–but they can’t truly investigate you in a serious, methodical, intensive way without some sort of cause to believe the shooting wasn’t justified. They have to have a positive reason to believe the shooting was against the law.

And that, believe it or not, is a good thing. We don’t want to give the police the authority to initiate an investigation of a citizen based on anything other than probable cause to believe a crime has been committed. The police have too much investigative power as it is.

The problem is the so-called Stand Your Ground laws have extended that right of self-defense in the home to–well, to everywhere. So while the police were able to temporarily detain and question George Zimmerman, they had no power or authority to begin an actual investigation into the matter. That step was precluded the moment Zimmerman said he believed his life was in danger and that he acted in self-defense. Without some obvious indication that Zimmerman was lying, the police response was necessarily limited.

It’s easy to blame George Zimmerman for killing an unarmed and completely innocent Trayvon Martin–because that’s exactly what he did. But it’s pointless to blame Zimmerman without looking at the social context that shaped the killing. Florida has very loose gun laws, which makes it possible for people like Zimmerman (who was arrested in the past for assaulting a police officer) to legally obtain a handgun. Florida’s laws also allowed him to obtain a permit to legally carry that weapon. Florida’s laws also allowed him to legally use that weapon in a situation that, until 2005, would have been considered criminal on the face of it. And finally, Florida’s laws limited the police response to the shooting.

There’s no doubt George Zimmerman is guilty of homicide–the killing of another person. But the law in Florida is such that he may not be guilty of murder–which is an illegal killing.

In Oliver Twist, the character Mr. Bumble is informed “the law supposes that your wife acts under your direction”. Mr. Bumble’s response: “If the law supposes that…the law is a ass—a idiot. If that’s the eye of the law, the law is a bachelor; and the worst I wish the law is that his eye may be opened by experience—by experience.”

The law in Florida (and some two dozen other states) is “a ass.” It’s to be hoped that the law may have its eyes opened by this experience. It’s to be hoped, but not to be expected.

2 thoughts on “the law is a ass

  1. I stand corrected. Kinda.

    I believe that that probable cause lie in the fact that a person was killed shortly after being told by a 911 dispatcher not to pursue.

    Would not the police officers on the scene have asked the 911 dispatcher about the call? Would not the dispatcher have said, “I told him not to go after him.” ? Would that not create circumstances that were—in the least—suspicious and—at most—criminal? Is not defying a police officer’s orders a crime? (Assuming, of course, that the 911 dispatcher is a bona fide police officer.)


    • There are a couple of problems with this. First, the dispatcher didn’t order Zimmerman not to follow Martin. What he said was “We don’t need you to do that.” Of course, you’re right that if Zimmerman hadn’t been a dick about it, he’d have listened to the dispatcher and let the police do their job. But refusing to listen to a dispatcher’s suggestion isn’t indicative of a crime.

      The other problem–the main problem–is that even if the dispatcher was a certified police officer and had given Zimmerman a direct and unambiguous order to leave the area and even if Zimmerman refused to do so, it wouldn’t change the fact that Zimmerman could claim he shot young Trayvon out of fear for his life. And unless there was evidence to the contrary, the police would be in the same situation.

      In fact, that’s happened. In Texas in 2007 a man saw some kids breaking into a neighbor’s house, called the police, told the police he was going to shoot them, the police dispatcher told him not to, the man insisted he would, then chased the kids down and killed them both. He was never prosecuted.


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