CHEYENNE – On July 1, Wyoming will become the latest state to codify a so-called “stand your ground” law after a hard-fought legislative effort pushed by gun rights advocates and the National Rifle Association.
But some attorneys and Gov. Matt Mead say the new law, intended to bolster self-defense arguments, will change little in the criminal system.
The bill establishes that someone may use deadly force in self-defense without retreating in a place where they are “lawfully present” if they “honestly” believe there is an imminent danger of serious bodily injury.
But Wyoming Supreme Court decisions and existing state law largely enforce that idea already.
Late last year, Albany County Attorney Peggy Trent declined to prosecute Brice Page, who fatally shot another man on Pole Mountain and claimed self-defense.
In a written statement about her reasons for not bringing charges, Trent cited a May 8 Wyoming Supreme Court decision about a case in Washakie County.
The justices found that a trial court must instruct a jury about self-defense if there is evidentiary support that the person acted to defend themselves.
“Due to the circumstances, Page would meet his burden for a self-defense instruction, and the State would not be able to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Page acted in self-defense,” Trent wrote.
But Laramie County District Attorney Jeremiah Sandburg said that despite the similarities to existing law, codifying a “no duty to retreat” clause will help clear up any confusion.
“A person who is reasonably in fear for their life or serious bodily injury does not have to consider whether it’s reasonable to retreat,” he said.
Despite the state Legislature’s recent decision to pass the proposal, Mead, a former federal prosecutor, expressed reservations before allowing it to become law without his signature.
“I believe existing law adequately addresses the concerns raised in the Stand Your Ground Bill,” he said in an emailed statement.
Tom Jubin, a local attorney and registered lobbyist with the Wyoming Trial Lawyers Association, went further.
“The laws that existed in Wyoming were clear and strongly allowed people to defend themselves,” he said. “This bill just makes hamburger out of that law. It’s more confusing than anything else.”
Part of the confusion could come in civil cases, where people being sued for wrongful death or injury can, starting July 1, file a motion asserting that they used defensive force defined under the new law.
A judge must then decide in a pretrial hearing whether there’s enough evidence to prove that they used defensive force. If they did, the court shall award attorneys fees, court costs and compensation for any lost income to the person being sued, usually paid by the person or family member suing.
In all civil cases, a judge typically issues a “summary judgment” without a full trial to dismiss the case if he or she doesn’t find grounds for a lawsuit. But now, in cases where the defendant claims self-defense, the hearing adds an extra hurdle and could require the appellant to pay for it, Jubin said.
“I think the intent is to tip in favor of someone who is claiming self-defense,” Jubin said.
Wyoming already has a similar law on the books, the so-called “castle doctrine,” where people do not have a duty to retreat in their own homes.
And at least 24 other states – including Montana, Nevada, Oklahoma and Utah – have laws stating that there is no duty to retreat from an attacker in a place where one is lawfully present, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
But the laws have come under scrutiny in recent years.
Florida found itself embroiled in controversy six years ago, when George Zimmerman shot an unarmed 17-year-old black teen named Trayvon Martin, claiming self-defense.
The Orlando Sentinel reported at the time that after the law passed, “some Orlando-area police agencies simply stopped investigating shootings involving self-defense claims and referred them directly to state prosecutors to decide.”