Unless you’ve lived in a cave over the past 4 months or so, you were deluged with the news story of the events leading to the death of a young African-American teenager, Trayvon Martin, who was admittedly shot by a “neighborhood watch captain”, George Zimmerman, in a gated community known as “Retreat at Twin Lakes“ in Sanford FL. 

Does the law regard these private guards as illicit “cop wanna-be’s” or are they given protections beyond that of an ordinary citizen?

The facts of this sad event are as follows:  About 7 p.m. on February 26, 2012, Zimmerman called 911 to report a “suspicious person” on foot within the community.  That person was Martin, 17 years of age.  Phone records show that just after 7 p.m. on that rainy night, Martin was talking on his cell phone to his girlfriend.  Zimmerman told the 911 dispatcher that he was following the person, that the person had started to run and that Zimmerman was pursuing him.  The 911 dispatcher told Zimmerman, “We don’t need you to do that.”

While speaking with Martin over the phone, Martin’s girlfriend heard someone ask Martin what he was doing, and Martin ask why Zimmerman was following him.  The girl then heard what she described as an altercation, just before the phone went dead.  It was later confirmed that at bout 7:25 p.m. Martin was shot and killed. He was unarmed, carrying a bag of Skittles candy and a can of iced tea.

Later that night Zimmerman told police that after he had spoken with the 911 dispatcher, he continued to follow Martin.  The two exchanged words, Zimmerman reached for his cell phone and Martin punched him and pinned him to the ground.  Zimmerman told police he had shot Martin in self-defense.  Neighbors told a different story.  There were multiple reports to the 911 dispatcher that gunfire was heard, followed by a man’s voice, screaming.  The police report was inconclusive but did report that Zimmerman was bleeding from his head when taken into custody.

The events of the 6-week media storm that followed are well known.  They included the resignation of the Sanford FL police chief, a comment by President Obama that the incident requires “national soul-searching”, and most disturbingly an offer of a $10,000 reward by “The New Black Panther Party”
for the “capture” of Zimmerman.

Zimmerman has been charged with second-degree murder.  His attorneys have told the press they will seek dismissal of the charge based on Florida’s “Stand-Your-Ground-Law”, which provides that a person who is not engaged in unlawful activity and who is attacked in a place where he or she has a right to be “has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force” if he or she reasonably believes it necessary to prevent bodily harm.  Though the law has been cited by commentators as controversial, it bears a striking resemblance to Illinois’ self-defense law, the only difference being that Illinois’ law is written in the negative:  person may not use force to defend himself or herself unless he or she reasonably believes it necessary and is otherwise engaged in lawful activity.

Illinois’ criminal statutes do accord special status to community policing volunteers and private security guards, by providing that any assault or battery against such persons is considered “aggravated” just as it would be if a real policeperson were involved. But Illinois does not give “private cops” the same privileges enjoyed by real policepersons.

A recent case illustrates the point.  In Poris v. Lake Holiday Property Owners’ Association, a homeowners’ association passed a speed limit for traffic on its private streets, to be enforced by the imposition of fines.  The association hired private security guards to enforce the speed limit, giving them a badge, uniform and “duty belt” which could be used to holster weapons, if the officer had a firearms license.  The private officers were also given vehicles equipped with flashing colored lights, radar units and an audio-visual recording device.  When one of the private security guards stopped and detained a member of the association for speeding, the member filed suit for false arrest.  The trial judge dismissed the suit but the Appellate Court reversed, holding that the security guard could only make a “citizens’ arrest” – the same as any citizen – if  the guard reasonably believed that a felony had been committed, not the violation of a traffic regulation imposed by a private association.  The case was sent back to the trial judge for trial, as a result of which the association will probably be liable for damages and will likely not be able to collect its fines.

These situations illustrate the danger of using private or volunteer cops, no matter how well intentioned,  to perform tasks normally reserved to real policepersons.  When a real cop stops or questions a citizen, that citizen knows that the real cop has certain official authority.  When a ”cop wanna-be” tries to stop a citizen, the roles are not well-defined, leading more probably than not to tragic consequences.