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Florida's "Stand Your Ground" vs. Colorado's "Make My Day": A primer in self-defense law

The language is similar, to some extent, and both laws were intended to clarify a person's right to self-defense. But there's a world of difference between Colorado's 28-year-old home- protection statute, commonly known as the "Make My Day" law, and Florida's 2005 "Stand Your Ground" law, which has been a continuing source of legal confusion and controversy -- right up to this weekend's headline-churning acquittal of George Zimmerman, who invoked the law in claiming self-defense in the fatal shooting last year of teenager Trayvon Martin.

Despite its macho, Eastwood-inspired nickname, the Colorado measure is essentially a narrowly focused, widely accepted affirmation of a bit of English common law, the notion that your home is your castle. The Florida law is, by contrast, a broadly written mess that's been used to justify all kinds of mayhem in all kinds of places, from car-chase shootouts among drug dealers to the summary executions of unarmed, fleeing victims. It's a law that many Sunshine State judges, prosecutors, civil rights advocates and politicians would like to see repealed.

Every state allows the use of "reasonable" force if a person is facing an imminent threat of physical harm, including deadly force if the threat is serious enough. What made Colorado's home-protection statute so special when it was first introduced in 1985 was its sanctioning of deadly force in defense of your home and property against an unlawful intruder, provided that you have a reasonable belief that the intruder "is committing or intends to commit a crime against a person or property," and that said dirtbag "might use physical force, no matter how slight." In other words, if someone is inside the walls of your domicile (not the porch or yard), doesn't belong there and seems to be up to no good, you're allowed to shoot first and let the cops ask the questions later. (You can find the exact provisions of C.R.S. 18-1-704.5 by following the links here.)

Signed into law by Governor Jeb Bush in 2005, Florida's "Stand Your Ground" also authorizes deadly force in defense of a residence -- or even an occupied vehicle. The perp doesn't have to be inside but merely "in the process of unlawfully and forcefully entering." Yet the measure goes much further, drastically expanding the circumstances under which deadly force can be used outside the home. As long you're not engaged in an unlawful activity yourself, in Florida you have no "duty to retreat" (hence "stand your ground") and can "meet force with force" when trouble arises, as long as you're not the aggressor. (Or, in the alternative, you're the only one left alive to explain who got aggressive with whom.) It helps if you have a reasonable fear of imminent peril of death or great bodily harm or, at the very least, a hunch that force is necessary to "prevent the imminent commission of a forcible felony."

If all this sounds loosey-goosey to the point of absurdity -- well, join the club. The law has allowed a defendant who felt threatened by a man banging on windows and doing cartwheels in an apartment complex parking lot to shoot him dead and walk free. A drug dealer who pursued another in a high-speed chase on Miami streets and killed him wasn't charged because hey, he thought his life was on the line.

A fascinating Tampa Tribune study of Florida's Stand Your Ground law found that nearly 70 percent of those who cited the law as a defense have gone free. (The Zimmerman case aside, if the victim is black, your chances of not being prosecuted are even better.) In nearly a third of the cases, the defendants either started the fight, shot someone who was unarmed, or chased their victims down -- and still went free.

The most lasting impact of the law, the report suggests, might be in the number of armed citizens eager to stand their ground. Since the law was passed and the duty to retreat removed, concealed weapon permits in Florida have tripled.

Of course, Colorado's Make My Day law, while more limited in scope, has had its share of controversies, too. More on that in this week's feature, which will hit the stands and the website Wednesday afternoon.

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