Stand Your Ground Likely Has Nothing To Do With Yesterday's Movie Theater Shooting

Categories: Crime, WTF Florida

The knee jerk media reaction to every sketchy shooting in Florida apparently now is to wonder if somehow the "Stand Your Ground" law is involved even when it clearly is not.

Look no farther than the local and national response to yesterday's bizarre and tragic shooting in a Tampa Bay-area movie theater over a man loudly texting. There's dozens of articles speculating that the suspect may try to use a Stand Your Ground defense based on absolutely next to nothing what so ever. Nevermind the fact that "Stand Your Ground" clearly likely does not apply in this case, and would certainly be a losing defense strategy that no criminal defense lawyer would actually employ in this case.

Here's what we know, briefly, about the incident so far: Curtis Reeves, a 71 year-old retire cop, got into an argument with 43-year-old Chad Oulson because Oulson was texting or trying to make a video call to a daycare center that was watching his three-year-old daughter during the coming attractions. The argument escalated. Oulson allegedly threw a bag of popcorn at Reeves. Reeves responded by taking out a handgun and then fatally shooting Oulson. Oulson's wife was also injured by the bullet.

Police briefly considered "Stand Your Ground," but realized it didn't apply and arrested Reeves and charged him with second degree homicide.

Now, because Reeves made statements to police officers in which he claimed he feared Oulson would further attack him after the popcorn throwing, journalists are bending over backwards to try and find a "Stand Your Ground" angle to the case.

Here's The Tampa Bay Times leading the charge:

Stetson Law professor Charles Rose said there are too many unknowns right now to determine whether Stand Your Ground could work in court. Many factors could come into play, he said.

For one, when Oulson threw popcorn, that was an assault under state law. Was it reasonable to respond with deadly force simply because of the popcorn? No, Rose said.

However, if Reeves considered the popcorn throwing to be one step in an escalating response from Oulson -- and if the 71-year-old man feared that Oulson would come over the movie theater seats and physically attack him next -- and if Reeves felt he wouldn't be able to handle such an attack from a younger man, then jurors might consider deadly force reasonable, the lawyer said.

"Here's the problem: We're trying to look into the mind of the defendant and posit what he thought was happening," Rose said. "That's often why these cases go trial -- because you just can't tell."

Lots of "ifs" in that analysis. Litearlly eight "ifs" and ten "coulds" in that article.

But here's a couple of things to consider: "Stand Your Ground" does not apply to those who "initially provoke[d] the use of force against himself or herself" except for a few exceptions. Granted, the media assumably doesn't have as much information about the incident as officers do, but it certainly appears that Reeves provoked the argument in the first place.

Let's also remember that the officers do have more information at this time, and Pasco County sheriff Chris Nocco told the Times in no uncertain terms "I can tell you we wanted to make sure that defense was taken off the table."

It's really a stretch that an ex-cop who provoked an argument and responded to popcorn throwing with a gunshot is going to get away under the law except under some strange hypothetical scenario or unless some new details come to light. Law professors agree its a stretch even under those scenarios, and the man has no attorney yet who has declared that they'll use the defense. So why are we even talking about it?

Because it's a hot button subject, and desperate journalists are going to try to rehash it for page views, likely.

Now, granted, maybe someone could make the argument that Floridians who are aware of the law but don't fully understand it are more ready to respond with deadly force in certain situations. But where are they getting that idea? Maybe from dumb newspaper articles that are stretching to infer that someone who killed someone over texting and popcorn could get away with it under the law.

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I agree that a Stand Your Ground defense seems ridiculous in this case. But the law is so ridiculous that I don't think the defense can be ruled out. The text says:

"However, a person is justified in the use of deadly force and does not have a duty to retreat if:

(1) He or she reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the imminent commission of a forcible felony..."

So then the question would be whether the shooter reasonably believed that such force is necessary to prevent great bodily harm to himself. Of course from the facts of the case that we have heard, that seems ridiculous. But the key issue is the shooter's belief at the time. Did he reasonably fear that he would suffer great bodily harm? I would say no, but who the hell knows? What other facts from immediately before the shooting can the defense find and present to make that fear seem reasonable? We'll see.

If we must have a law like this with no duty to retreat (which I think is bad policy), it should be "Such force is reasonably necessary..." rather than "He or she reasonably believes such force is necessary..."

In a state that allows concealed carry, the text of the law is just asking for regular arguments to end in shootings. And indeed they do!


One has to wonder what to make of a former police cop who (incidentally started the Tampa Police Department’s SWAT team) comes to a movie showing with a loaded gun? How much sympathy can Reeves expect to receive from the courts? It’s not like he was on security watch, on duty, protecting his property, reacting to imminent danger (unless loud text noises now constitute imminent threats).

Then again there is the prevailing view from many that one should be allowed to bear arms at any moment and at any time. Which raises the question do we really want a society where violence is always one argument, misunderstanding, temper tantrum,  one hurt ego away?

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