Utah 'stand your ground' bill advances despite fears of violence against minorities

Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune Rep. A. Cory Maloy, R-Lehi listens as U.S. Senator Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, speaks in the Utah House of Representatives, Wednesday, February 22, 2017.

Despite concerns that it could lead to extra violence against minorities, a bill advanced Wednesday to beef up Utah’s “stand your ground” law — which allows people to defend themselves with force without the need to retreat, even if possible.

Such a law helped George Zimmerman escape a murder conviction in the 2012 Florida shooting of Treyvon Martin, a black teenager returning to his home from a store. The incident sparked protests nationwide, and brought new focus to such laws.

The House Law Enforcement Committee approved HB129 on a 7-3 vote, and sent it to the full House.

“I’m outraged,” said Rep. Sandra Hollins, D-Salt Lake City, the only black member of the Legislature. She said because of Treyvon Martin’s looks, “he was targeted,” and said it could lead to similar actions against “people in the district that I represent.”

Margarita Satini, chairwoman of the Utah Pacific Islanders Engagement Coalition, said the bill “will disproportionately affect people of color.”

She added, “We’ve been conditioned to fear, to question, to distrust certain individuals with certain physical appearances…. The last thing we need is this bill passing and allowing them [fearful people] … to take matters into their own hands.”

Rep. Cory Maloy, R-Lehi, the bill’s sponsor, said Utah has had a “stand your ground” law on the books since the 1990s. However, he said questions are sometimes still raised by prosecutors or in civil actions about whether people who defended themselves could have retreated.

He said his bill would clarify the law and stop such questioning.

The bill says, “The failure of an individual to retreat … is not a relevant factor in determining whether the individual who used or threatened force acted reasonably.” Maloy pushed a similar bill unsuccessfully last year.

Curt Oda, a former Utah House member who teaches self-defense classes, said such courses advise to look around and retreat where possible. “But once the engagement starts taking place, any distraction from the assailant may be fatal” — and do not allow weighing options to retreat.

Maryann Christensen, representing the Utah Eagle Forum, said, “There all kind of factors that go into deciding whether it is safe for you to retreat, but you don’t have time to consider them when an attacker is on you.”

Committee Chairman Lee Perry, R-Perry, who is a Utah Highway Patrol lieutenant, said he now seeing that “people are challenging anytime a law officer uses force — could he have done something else, could he have retreated, could he have backed off?” The Utah Association of Police Chiefs supported the bill.

Only the three Democrats on the committee voted against the bill.