Recent events are raising questions about whether "stand your ground" and "castle doctrine" laws – which offer legal protection to people who hurt or kill someone in self-defense – could disproportionately harm teenagers.
During the past week, three teenagers in states with such laws were shot to death for doing things that, critics of the laws say, teenagers regularly get caught doing.
In Florida, unarmed 17-year-old Jordan Davis was allegedly shot and killed by 40-something Michael Dunn after an argument about a loud car stereo outside a convenience store.
And in Minnesota, retired State Department employee Byron David Smith allegedly wounded and then killed two teenagers, Haile Kifer and Nicholas Brady, who broke into his house on Thanksgiving, apparently on a hunt for prescription drugs.
This week also saw three teen boys charged with murder in Alabama after their friend, Summer Moody, was shot in April. When a man caught the four breaking into fishing cottages in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta, he allegedly fired a warning shot that killed Summer in what a district attorney called a "tragic accident." On Wednesday, a grand jury indicted the three boys, not the man who shot Summer.
"Alabama’s law is not quite like Florida’s stand your ground law, but it is close," Tommy Chapman, a local district attorney, told The Mobile Press-Register.
Especially in the wake of the Trayvon Martin shooting in February, castle doctrine and stand your ground laws are under growing scrutiny. Though they vary by state, the laws are founded on the idea that lawful citizens have no "duty to retreat" from danger in and around their dwelling or even in public. Dozens of states have passed such laws in the past 10 years.
But critics say the laws could significantly raise the stakes for teenagers engaging in stupid pranks and petty crime.
These new laws "are going to disproportionately result in more consequences to teenagers that are beyond the scope of what the kids were really doing," says Kathleen Stilling, a former Wisconsin circuit judge and currently a lawyer in Brookfield, Wis. The worry, she adds, is that teenagers doing things "that are not capital offenses end up facing deadly consequences."
Those dynamics were highlighted by the first test of Wisconsin's castle doctrine law in April, when a teenager fleeing a party busted by police in Slinger, Wis., hid on an enclosed back porch. The startled homeowner shot the "intruder." Prosecutors decided not to press charges against the homeowner.
Though there are no data on the impact of stand your ground laws on teenagers, a Texas A&M University study this summer found that homicide rates had risen by an average of 7 to 9 percent in states that enacted such laws. The causes were not clear, but the authors of the study suggested that "perhaps the most obvious form of escalation – and one most commonly cited by critics of castle doctrine law – is that conflicts or crimes that might not have otherwise turned deadly may now do so."
In Florida, at least, support for stand your ground remains strong. A Quinnipiac poll found that 56 percent of respondents in the state said the law makes society safer. Moreover, a Florida task force convened to look at the law in the wake of the Trayvon Martin shooting said last week that the law may need minor tweaks but is, on the whole, sound.
Trayvon, an unarmed black teen, was shot to death by a community watch volunteer, igniting nationwide protests. His parents are calling for stand your ground laws to be repealed or changed to better protect teenagers.
For Ms. Stilling, the main problem is expanding the scope of the these laws beyond the home.
"When you're talking about the sidewalk immediately outside your house, it seems to me that's going to be an area where there's a higher potential for kids, perhaps naughty but innocent of any destructive intent, could end up," she says. Just talking to teenagers reveals stories "about underage drinking parties, or 'Risky Business' parties, and how everybody ran from the cops and scattered into surrounding yards, where they could end up in a position to frighten someone."
In an opinion article for the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, she wrote: "I do think that someone needs to tell the kids that the rules have changed."
If the recent incidents raise concerns about an increased danger to teens, however, they also show that prosecutors retain power to take action against those who, they say, misapply the law.
In Florida, Mr. Dunn has been charged with murder and attempted murder. His lawyer says he will invoke stand your ground in defense. Dunn claims he saw a shotgun being raised in the back seat of the car. Neither witnesses nor police report seeing or finding a gun.
In Minnesota, Mr. Smith has been charged with two counts of second-degree murder. While the initial shootings may have been defensible under Minnesota's new castle law, prosecutors said, Smith's decision to shoot the injured teenagers again is likely not covered under the law, since any bodily threat to him had been effectively neutralized.