The criminal justice system is far from perfect. And its job is rather hefty. Lives hang in the balance, at the mercy of the language of the law. So it’s important that lawmakers are always looking to improve that language.
A recent measure currently facing the Wyoming Legislature aims to do just that.
The “stand your ground” bill seeks to protect individuals from prosecution for assault or murder who claim to have acted in self-defense. And while we understand that clarifying legislation in order to protect people who’ve only acted to protect themselves or their loved ones seems like a no-brainer, some of the bill’s language is extremely problematic.
A provision in a House bill would offer “automatic immunity” to anyone claiming to have acted in self-defense, which would prevent the cops from arresting them.
But Wyoming law would already protect individuals who’ve acted in self-defense, so the immunity provision is dangerous and unnecessary.
Despite the insistence of proponents of the bill that Wyoming law enforces a “duty to retreat,” the state Supreme Court ruled in 2013 that the provision was not a blanket statement and only applies to situations where the victim had a reasonable opportunity to retreat before acting to defend themselves.
So a woman who uses her keys to fend off an attacker in a parking lot, or a man who shoots an armed stranger to defend himself and his child would not be prosecuted in a court of law.
The immunity clause only means that if you hurt someone to protect yourself, you wouldn’t have to sit in jail while the justice system sorted out the details.
It also means that if anybody hurt another person for nefarious reasons, the victim and his or her family may never see justice.
The bill’s immunity clause, then, changes little for good people who act in self-defense. Instead, it would likely become an easy out for violent criminals and bad guys.
Even worse, rather than empowering people to act in self-defense, the bill would likely empower violence when violence isn’t the answer.
Currently, the law asks you to de-escalate and retreat if possible. And if you can’t, if violence is your only remaining option, then the law will protect you in court. But this bill, as it stands, would make violence a first choice and criminals would take advantage.
And we aren’t the only ones who think so.
The Wyoming Association of Sheriffs and Chiefs of Police has come out in opposition to the immunity provision. If an officer arrives at the aftermath of a bar fight that resulted in a death, the attacker only needs to claim that he was attacked first and the officer then couldn’t arrest him or investigate the incident.
The Senate has cut this problematic element from the bill, and we’re glad. Because legislators need to make sure that the law is sensible. And the automatic immunity provision is anything but.
When the bill is returned to the House, we hope that the representatives will consider the Senate’s amended version.