"Stand Your Ground" Bill Creates Separate Battle Over Self-Defense

Jun 17, 2018

One of the most controversial bills moving through the Statehouse is the so-called “Stand Your Ground” bill. Pro-gun groups are for the legislation and say it removes the requirement to try and retreat before taking lethal action. But there’s a separate battle happening within the bill.

For most crimes committed in Ohio the court system is set up so that a defendant is innocent until proven guilty. But that’s not the case when it comes to self-defense. Ohio is the only state in the country that puts the burden of proof on the defendant to prove they’re not guilty.

State Public Defender Tim Young said this means the deck is stacked against anyone trying to make a case for self-defense. "There are lawful killings, that’s a horrible way to think about it but there are lawful killings. Somebody comes at you with a knife you have a right, an absolute right both under the law and by I think natural selection if you will to defend yourself," Young said. "It’s their burden to proof that you didn’t do it lawfully.”

But the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association is opposed to the bill. Their executive director Louis Tobin said all this will do is make it harder to convict criminals. “What it really does is make it more difficult to convict that group of people and to get them off the streets. So that’s where the risk to public safety comes in," Tobin said. "I’ll just add to that, prosecutors they do what they do because they want to promote public safety they want to get to the truth of the matter and they want to secure justice for victims prosecuting somebody who’s justifiably using self-defense doesn’t promote any of those goals.”

This issue is rolled into the larger so-called “Stand Your Ground” bill, which includes the elimination of the duty to retreat, making it easier to use lethal force in self-defense. Pro-gun groups have said this expands their ability to protect themselves. Opponents fear this will lead to more violence and less accountability.

Young and Tobin are not often on the same side of an issue, but they agree on that point. They both don’t like Stand Your Ground. 

“My office would normally oppose a Stand Your Ground bill like this because it will probably result in more death, it will probably result in more violent confrontation in Ohio," said Young. "But it’s going to pass, so we might as well and we should get Ohio in the right way with the self-defense portion.”

Pro-gun groups, such as the Buckeye Firearms Association, would argue that Stand Your Ground will save lives because people will be emboldened to protect themselves.

But as for the self-defense portion of the bill, Young has a theory about why the prosecutors don’t like it: "They just don’t want to prove this element because it makes their job a little harder.”

Tobin admitted it’s difficult to argue when 49 states already do it this way, but “Ohio just does it better, our law is based on 200 years of common law rather than the winds of the time which are to place the burden on the prosecution and I think until proponents can point to some injustices that are happening under current law there’s no reason to change it.”

But Young said this proposal before lawmakers is a better reflection of how the criminal justice system has been set up since the beginning.  “The right that our founders protected, through war, through succession, from the British reign was about freedom, was about controlling your own destiny without government interference and control," Young said. "That’s what self-defense is about the ability to defend yourself and if the government said you didn’t do it right it should be the government’s burden to prove you didn’t do it right.”

But Tobin countered that proponents of this overhaul to self-defense litigation have built up a stigma around a law that’s made sense for Ohio for 200 years. “It’s evidence that’s peculiar to the accused. So only the accused knows what was going on in their mind at a given moment so the law has required them to say ‘this is what was going on, this is why my actions were justified," Tobin said.

The bill has passed out of a House committee and given the track record of other gun bills in the House it’s likely this piece of legislation could be taken up soon. But Gov. John Kasich has said he doesn’t like the bill and won’t sign it.