A hoary statutory destruction debate that hails from the Fifties centered on the simple prohibition, “No Vehicles in the Park.” The question is whether the reasonable and proper interpretation of such a prohibition should rest on the clear meaning of the words alone, or whether the underlying purpose and reasoning behind the rule or law must be taken into account. A tank is a vehicle: does the rule mean that a WW I tank can’t be placed in the park as a memorial? Is a baby stroller a vehicle (the dictionary says yes)? If we accept the literal approach—the school of jurisprudence championed by scholar L.A. Hart that is called legal positivism—we take legal interpretation out the realm of ethics and morality, and give judges only the power to apply laws as written, results be damned. The other approach, more popular with non-lawyers and many judges but not necessarily correct, is identified with Hart’s contemporary Lon Fuller, and called the natural law approach.
This conflict has arisen in intriguing fashion in a South Carolina dispute over the application of that state’s Stand Your Ground law in domestic abuse cases. In 2012, an abusive boyfriend, Eric Lee, dragged Whitlee Jones down a street by her hair. She got away, and Lee returned to the apartment they shared. A 911 call prompted by the hair-dragging spectacle brought a policeman to visit, and Lee put him at ease, saying that all was well.
It wasn’t. Jones, having retrieved her hair weave that didn’t survive the drag through downtown Charleston, returned to the apartment to pack her belongings and move out. As Jones began to leave the apartment, Lee blocked her way, and according to Jones, began to shake her. She pulled out a knife and stabbed him once, and once was enough. Lee died. Jones was arrested for murder.
A judge ruled earlier this month that Jones had a right to kill Lee under the Protection of Persons and Property Act, which says that there is no duty to retreat from deadly threats and allows those threatened in certain situations to use force to defend life and limb, even deadly force. The 9th Circuit Solicitor’s Office, however, argued that Jones and those like her were not who legislators intended to protect when they passed the “stand your ground” law in 2006. “(The legislature’s) intent … was to provide law-abiding citizens greater protections from external threats in the form of intruders and attackers,” prosecutor Culver Kidd told the news media. “We believe that applying the statute so that it reaches into our homes and personal relationships is inconsistent with (its) wording and intent.”
Circuit Judge J.C. Nicholson rejected this argument, and granted Jones Stand Your Ground immunity, exempting her from trial on the murder charge. In response to Kidd’s argument that individuals could not invoke Stand Your Ground to defend against violence in their own homes, Nicholson said that construction would create the “nonsensical result” that a victim of domestic abuse could defend against an attacker outside of the home, but not inside the home, where some pretty violent attacks occur.
Just ask the NFL.
Kidd isn’t backing down. Similar cases are coming before his office (in one of them, the judge dismissed a murder charge against a women who stabbed a roommate attacking her, and called the charge “appalling”). He is appealing the case, arguing that Jones and other potential domestic abuse victims can’t invoke the Stand Your Ground law if they are in homes they share with their attackers.
In fine “No Vehicles in the Park!” fashion, there is a positivist argument that favors Kidd. South Carolina has two self-defense provisions: the Castle Doctrine, authorizing occupants of a home to use deadly force against intruders, and Stand Your Ground, allowing deadly force to defend against threatened bodily harm in another place where a citizen “has a right to be.” Neither literally covers the Jones-Lee confrontation.
From an ethics viewpoint, it is clear what the “right” result is, and Judge Nicholson identified it. But if judges keep pretending that laws say what they really don’t, where does it end? It appears that the legislature left a yawning hole between its self-defense statutes that Whitlee Jones fell right into. Do laws mean what they say, or what “everybody knows” they were intended to say? Ethical rules and principles have to be regarded as flexible, because situations always arise where applying them bring unethical results. Laws, however, have to be consistently interpreted for citizens to know what is legal and what isn’t. Kidd’s argument is that, like it or not, no current legislation gave Whitlee Jones the right to kill her room mate in a home they shared. His message to the legislature is “Fix it. Don’t expect judges and prosecutors to ignore it.”
He’s not wrong.
Let’s skateboard through the park!
Pointer: Think Progress
Facts: Post and Courier