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State's stand your ground law challenged

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POSTED: April 10, 2012 9:36 a.m.

ATLANTA (AP) — A civil rights activist is challenging Georgia's self-defense law in court after a man who fatally shot a black teenager in Florida invoked a similar law in that state to avoid prosecution.

Georgia's law leads to the "unnecessary use of lethal force" that could particularly endanger black residents, said the Rev. Markel Hutchins, who filed the federal lawsuit on Monday.

Hutchins said he was inspired to challenge the state's so-called stand your ground law because of the Feb. 26 death of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed 17-year-old killed by a Florida neighborhood watch captain. George Zimmerman, 28, has said he shot Martin in self-defense.

"Trayvon Martin's death exposed to us just how much the law is bad public policy," said Hutchins, who is black. "What we know is for young African-American men, we are often the subject of peoples' fear. And this litigation seeks to provide some parameters."

A spokeswoman for Attorney General Sam Olens, who is named in the lawsuit, declined to comment on the litigation.

The Florida shooting has ignited racial tensions and has raised questions over whether police properly handled the investigation. Martin was black, and Zimmerman's father is white and his mother is Hispanic.

It's also stoked debate about stand your ground laws in Florida, Georgia and 19 other states that give people wide latitude to use deadly force rather than retreat during a fight. The law helps explain why Zimmerman wasn't arrested in Martin's death.

Hutchins' lawsuit targets the language of the July 2006 Georgia law that says a person is justified in using deadly force only if "he or she reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent death or great bodily injury to himself or herself or a third person."

The lawsuit says the language is far too vague and fails to define what sort of reasonable fear could lead to an act of force. That failure, the lawsuit contends, encourages vigilantism and does "nothing except make it more difficult to prosecute the overly trigger-happy among us."

Hutchins hopes the lawsuit will force a federal judge to review the 2006 law, but it must clear procedural hurdles before a judge reviews the merits of the case. Among the challenges is proving Hutchins, who hasn't been a victim of a wrongful shooting, has standing to file the lawsuit. But his attorney, Robert Patillo, said he'll be able to prove Hutchins can file the complaint.

"This is a constitutional injury, and it's an injury common to all Georgians," he said.

 

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