Sunday, March 9, 2014
FARMINGTON — People frequently ask Andrew Robinson, a prosecutor in Franklin County, about Maine's self-defense laws.
When he spoke at a Rotary Club meeting last year, most members wanted advice about defending themselves with a firearm. Similar pleas for legal counsel prompted him to distribute copies of self-defense laws at a community crime forum in January.
With national headlines in recent weeks about the fatal shooting of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin, however, Robinson is worried that debates about Florida's self-defense laws will confuse people elsewhere, including in Maine.
Martin, 17, was shot and killed Feb. 26 in a gated Sanford, Fla., community by George Zimmerman, a 28-year-old neighborhood watch volunteer who claims he acted in self-defense and has not been arrested or charged.
Although most people know each state follows its own self-defense laws, the emotional and public discussion of Florida's so-called "stand your ground" law is sure to raise further questions from Mainers, Robinson said.
Robinson, 41, noted that differences between Maine's laws and those in Florida make it important for people to familiarize themselves with their state's laws, get the appropriate firearm permits and attend training and educational courses on self-defense.
He said the Florida shooting "makes it very clear of the need to be able to explain why you used deadly force and prove it was justified."
James Billings, an Augusta defense lawyer, described Maine's self-defense laws as a shield instead of a sword, making it difficult to justify using deadly force under circumstances being argued in Florida.
Billings, 47, has been an attorney in Maine for about 10 years, representing clients in a variety of cases, including several murder trials. He will speak about self-defense laws at a firearms training course in Belgrade later this month.
Billings, like Robinson, believes a lot of people have misconceptions about the laws. His biggest concern is people who build their approach to self-defense based on one example, regardless of the details. "It's not as clear-cut as people think," he said.
For instance, the laws look at some factors tied to using deadly force differently when someone is inside their home, with the differences consisting of the type of crime being committed along with other criteria, Billings said.
He noted that most Maine legal precedents, however, have established that there are very few scenarios where using deadly force is legally justified.
"Most of the case law makes it clear that the self-defense (law) is a shield and not a sword and intended to use the minimum amount of force to avoid the harm," Billings said.
Maine's self-defense laws, which require a person to try to avoid confrontations under most circumstances, differ from the "stand your ground" law in Florida and other states, he said.
In Maine, the laws say that if someone can retreat safely they are not authorized to use deadly force, unless they are inside their home and meet the criteria for that scenario, Billings said. Florida's stand your ground law says a person has no duty to retreat.
Billings plans to tell people at the firearms training course that they should begin by thinking about a simple rule when it comes to firing a weapon at another person, regardless of the circumstances.
"You have to really believe that your life is on the line or someone else's life is on the line," he said.
Morning Sentinel Staff Writer David F. Robinson can be contacted at 861-9287 or at: