A Cleveland city councilman announced a grassroots effort to oppose proposed changes to the state’s deadly force laws, believing the so-called ‘stand your ground’ law could put minorities and people of color in danger.
In the first day of its lame-duck session last week, the Ohio House of Representatives approved a measure that would remove the "duty to retreat" provision in state law governing deadly force situations. Currently, the duty to retreat provision is only applicable to incidents that take place on streets, sidewalks and other publicly-accessible areas.
The Ohio house passed the change to the state's deadly force laws last week
Under current law, a concealed carry permit holder is required to do his or her best to leave or run away from a physical threat. Only after retreating can deadly force be administered, assuming no other options are available. The Fraternal Order of Police of Ohio and the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association, in addition to some civil rights groups, oppose the measure.
Ninth Ward Cleveland City Councilman Kevin Conwell also opposes the proposed change.
“It concerns me a great deal. Stand your ground is not good for people of color. It’s not good for African Americans,” Conwell said. “Where stand your ground is pushed in other states, African Americans are always on the losing end.”
Proponents say the current duty to retreat law is also problematic in that it shifts the burden of proof onto the defendant – instead of the state. Currently, a defendant asserting self-defense is required to prove three things by a preponderance of the evidence, which is the legal term for "more likely than not."
Defendants must prove that he or she was not at fault in creating the violation situation. The defendant must also reasonably believe that he or she was in imminent danger of death or serious bodily harm and that use of force was the only way to escape such danger. Lastly, the defendant has to prove that he or she followed the duty to retreat.
Before the bill passed, the provisions earned a strong rebuke by several Cleveland-area lawmakers, who gave impassioned pleas on the House floor. Some have likened the proposed legislation to the similar laws enacted in Florida. Those so-called stand your ground laws became the focal point in the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin in 2012. The Ohio Senate has not scheduled a vote on the proposal.
Rep. Stephanie Howse was one state representative who opposed the measure.
“When you see that, you don’t let that come to Ohio,” Conwell said. “That’s a bad law and we need to defeat it now. We need to call our senators. We need to go down and testify against it. You have got to fight these things constantly and you have to look at lessons learned.”
In the coming days, Conwell said he will be meeting with prominent pastors, civic leaders and other community organizers to begin lobbying state senators to vote down the measure. While Conwell said he believes people have the right to defend themselves, he said ‘stand your ground’ is unnecessary and potentially dangerous.
“The stand your ground law gives every day, untrained citizens more leeway than the United States military gives soldiers in a war zone,” Conwell said.
Tim Dimoff, a security expert that is nationally-recognized, and his firm, SACS Consulting and Investigative Services, have spent two decades researching cases involving deadly force. He is also frequently called upon as an expert witness in local and federal court cases.
Dimoff said the duty to retreat provision is especially problematic.
“That’s the real problem area. What is a proper retreat? Is it two steps? Is it 20 steps? Is it half a block?” Dimoff said. “When you have to prove retreat, you’re now putting the burden of the proof of justifiable use on the [defendant]. It becomes very hard to prove that and to what extent is retreating?”
Opponents of the proposed legislation, which the bill’s sponsor has been in the works for the better part of two years, said removing the duty to retreat provision de-incentivizes people to de-escalate violent encounters. Dimoff, however, said retreating can also put the concealed carry permit holder in a tactically more vulnerable situation.
“We think retreat is a weakness to the self-defense and can send the wrong message to the aggressor,” Dimoff said.
Dimoff also added that in his research, deadly force is rarely used.
“The majority of cases — and I would call that over 90 percent of cases — the person has removed and exposed their firearm and in those cases that was the end of the aggression,” Dimoff said.