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Lawsuit calls Georgia's 'Stand Your Ground' law unconstitutional

An opponent of Florida's 'Stand Your Ground' law wears a button against handguns outside a meeting o the law in Longwood, Florida, June 12,
An opponent of Florida's 'Stand Your Ground' law wears a button against handguns outside a meeting o the law in Longwood, Florida, June 12,

By David Beasley

ATLANTA (Reuters) - A national coalition led by the Reverend Jesse Jackson Sr. is seeking to have Georgia's "Stand Your Ground" statute ruled unconstitutional, arguing in a federal lawsuit filed late Monday that the law discriminates against minorities.

The 2006 law, which allows citizens to use deadly force in self-defense if they feel threatened, harms black people because they are often perceived by society as more dangerous than other racial groups, Jackson's Rainbow PUSH Coalition said in the suit filed in Atlanta.

"All Georgians, and particularly those of color, will be compelled to at all times prove that they are not taking part in any action which may lead an individual to form a ‘reasonable belief' that they are posing a threat to them," the suit said.

Robert Patillo, lead attorney for the plaintiffs, said he believed the coalition's legal challenge was the only pending federal lawsuit in the country against a state "Stand Your Ground" law.

The laws came under new scrutiny after the 2012 death of Florida teenager, Trayvon Martin. Police in the central Florida town of Sanford initially declined to arrest shooter George Zimmerman, citing that state's Stand Your Ground law and evidence that the unarmed Martin was getting the better of Zimmerman in a struggle when Zimmerman drew his gun and fired.

Martin was black, and Zimmerman is white and Hispanic. Zimmerman was later charged in the shooting death of the unarmed Martin but was acquitted by a jury of second-degree murder.

Though the Atlanta suit references Martin's case, the Rainbow PUSH Coalition began preparing its challenge before his death, Patillo said.

"We're hoping this will catch on and that there will be similar suits in the other 20-plus states" with Stand Your Ground laws, he said.

The suit cites the 2012 death of an African-American man named Chris Johnson, who was unarmed when he was shot to death by a white man in a bar fight in Newnan, Georgia. The alleged shooter was acquitted under Georgia's Stand Your Ground law, the suit said.

The lawsuit seeks a temporary court order barring enforcement of the law while the case is pending.

Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens declined to comment on Tuesday, and a spokesman for Governor Nathan Deal said the governor "sees no need to revisit this legislatively and has no say over the court case."

The Georgia law protects all people who are victims of attacks and should not be changed, said John Monroe, an Atlanta attorney and vice president of a gun rights group, GeorgiaCarry.Org. The right of self defense goes back hundreds of years to English common law and exists regardless of the 2006 Georgia statute, he said.

"If they got exactly what they're asking for, for the 2006 law to be declared unconstitutional, not a thing would change," he said.

Last month, Trayvon Martin's mother urged a U.S. Senate panel to help rescind Stand Your Ground laws in more than 20 states that have passed them, starting with Florida in 2005. The laws remove requirements to retreat from danger.

"The person that shot and killed my son is walking the streets today," Martin's mother Sybrina Fulton told the Senate Judiciary Committee.

(Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Bernadette Baum)

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