Utah belongs to a majority of states which have “stand your ground” laws. These laws, which became a subject of renewed controversy after the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin in 2012, grant the right to use potentially lethal force against an attacker or home invader who poses an immediate risk of death or severe injury. Here, Salt Lake City assault lawyer Darwin Overson explains how stand your ground laws can impact defendants who have been charged with violent crimes in Utah.
Trayvon Martin, George Zimmerman Spark Controversy over Stand Your Ground Laws
Stand your ground laws entered the national spotlight near the end of February 2012, when Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old resident of Sanford, Florida, was fatally wounded by George Zimmerman. Zimmerman, 29, fired a Kel-Tec PF-9 pistol at Martin’s chest after becoming suspicious that the teen was planning to commit a break-in.
Zimmerman was subsequently detained and questioned by police, and eventually, charged with murder. After a heavily publicized trial which lasted from June 10 to July 13, 2013, Zimmerman was acquitted (found not guilty) by a jury of six.
The verdict, which received a tremendous amount of media coverage, ignited a national conversation about the legality of shooting in self-defense. However, stand your ground laws actually predate the case by several decades. Utah, for example, had stand your ground laws since 1994, long before Florida adopted them in 2005. Utah’s law originated in a bill sponsored by Rep. Steve Barth (D-Salt Lake City), HB13, which was drafted with the intent to help domestic violence victims protect themselves.
In July 2009, an incident similar to the Martin shooting occurred in Bluffdale, Utah. In that instance, Reginald Campos, 48, shot David Serbeck, 42, paralyzing him below the waist, in a confrontation that started because Campos believed Serbeck was following his 16-year-old daughter in his car. Campos was initially found guilty of attempted murder, but the conviction was subsequently overturned by the Utah Court of Appeals, and in 2014, Campos was granted parole.
When Can You Use Deadly Force in Self-Defense or to Protect Your Property in Utah?
State laws relating to self-defense and “stand your ground” are located in the Utah Criminal Code under Chapter 2, Part 4 (Justification Excluding Criminal Responsibility). These laws answer important legal questions about the use of force in self-defense.
- When can you use force in self-defense, or in defense of another person? Under Utah Code § 76-2-402, there are two scenarios in which this is justified:
- “A person is justified in… using force against another when and to the extent that the person reasonably believes that force… is necessary to defend the person or a third person against another person’s imminent use of unlawful force.” The force used must be proportionate to the threat perceived, and the threat to safety must be imminent.
- Under Utah Code § 76-2-402(1)(b), a person may force that is “intended or likely to cause death or serious bodily injury” only when “the person reasonably believes that force is necessary to prevent death or serious bodily injury… as a result of another person’s imminent use of unlawful force, or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.” Again, the threat must be imminent, and must be likely to cause death or severe injury. “Forcible felonies” include, but are not limited to, aggravated assault, manslaughter, rape, and kidnapping.
- A person may not use force if they deliberately provoke the other person, or are in the process of committing a felony.
- When can you use force in defense of your home? Under Utah Code § 76-2-405, “A person is justified in using force against another when and to the extent that he [or she] reasonably believes that the force is necessary to prevent or terminate [an intruder’s] unlawful entry into or attack upon” the home. However, force which is likely to cause death or severe injury may be used only when the person reasonably believes that:
- The intruder intends to commit a felony (such as burglary), and force is needed to prevent the felony from being committed.
- The intruder’s unlawful entry involves violence or sneaking around (“in a violent and tumultuous manner, surreptitiously, or by stealth”). Additionally, the person must have reasonable cause to believe that the intruder has intent to commit assault or other violent acts, and that “that the force is necessary to prevent the assault.”
- When can you use non-lethal force in defense of your property? Under Utah Code § 76-2-406, a person is justified in using non-lethal force when the property owner “reasonably believes that force is necessary to prevent or terminate another person’s criminal interference with… property” that lawfully belongs to the property owner, a member of their immediate family, or a person under their protection. To reiterate, this applies specifically to non-lethal force.
- When can you use force which is likely to cause death or severe injury in self-defense, or the defense of others, on property other than your own home? Under Utah Code § 76-2-407, this is permitted only when all of the following facts are true:
- The property belongs to the person using force.
- The property owner has reasonable cause to believe that the use of force is needed to “to prevent or terminate the other person’s trespass onto the real property.”
- The act of trespassing involves force or violence.
- The property owner has reasonable cause to believe that the intruder intends to commit violence, or that the intruder intends to commit a felony “that poses imminent peril of death or serious bodily injury to a person on the real property.” In either scenario, the property owner must also have reasonable cause to believe that force is needed to stop or prevent the action.
When assessing whether use of force was justified, Utah courts consider factors like the severity and imminence of the danger to the defendant, as well as criminal histories and any former confrontations that might have taken place between the parties.
Utah Criminal Defense Attorneys Handling Homicide, Assault, and Gun Charges
Utah’s stand your ground laws are nuanced and complex, and do not necessarily apply to every criminal case. However, a skilled criminal defense lawyer can evaluate when use of force in self-defense may be used as a strategy to fight criminal charges. If you or one of your family members has been charged with aggravated assault, homicide, or other violent crimes in Utah, legal representation by an experienced defense attorney is imperative. These types of charges are extremely serious, and you could be sentenced to many years in prison.
Call the law offices of Overson Law right away at (801) 758-2287 to set up a free and confidential legal consultation. We represent defendants throughout the state of Utah.