The Injustice of Vigilante Justice
The shooting of Trayvon Martin has caused a national media frenzy, with pundits, celebrities, and even President Obama weighing in on the event that has sparked protests and outrage across the country. With emotions running high, it wasn’t long before understandably outraged people threatened violence.
The New Black Panther Party offered a $10,000 bounty for the “citizen’s arrest” of Mr. Zimmerman., though the reward was offered to anyone who could capture him “dead or alive.” The Department of Justice has yet to take any action against the group.
Then, on March 23, Elaine and David McClain of Sanford, Florida, an elderly couple who had nothing to do with the tragedy, learned firsthand about the anger directed towards shooter George Zimmerman when filmmaker Spike Lee took to Twitter to tweet to his followers what he thought was Mr. Zimmerman’s address, but was in fact the McClains’ home address.
The negligent actions of Mr. Lee and the cash reward offered by the New Black Panther Party could have resulted in violence for the McCain and Zimmerman families. LASIS examines the civil and criminal liability that could (and should) result.
First, let’s turn to Spike Lee’s irresponsible behavior. Mr. Lee learned the address from a man named Marcus Higgins, who discovered the McClains’ address after searching through public records and stumbling upon the wrong George Zimmerman. He tweeted the address to a number of celebrities, including Mr. Lee. When Mr. Lee picked up on the information, he posted the address on his own Twitter account, without verifying its accuracy, and urged his 200,000 plus followers to retweet the address as well. The response on the social media website was vicious:
- “LET’S TURN UP THE HEAT ON HIS BITCH ASS!!!”
- “He deserves to DIE!!! – Couldn’t Care Less”
- “What yall wanna do? Why tf is he still breathing?!”
The McClains felt forced to seek refuge in a hotel after receiving death threats and hate mail at their home. They then reached out to Mr. Lee requesting that he post a retraction and acknowledge his mistake. Late on the evening of March 28, Mr. Lee tweeted: “I Deeply Apologize To The McClain Family For Retweeting Their Address. It Was A Mistake. Please Leave The McClain’s (sic) In Peace.” The McClains retained a lawyer and settled with Mr. Lee for an undisclosed amount.
Mr. Lee is lucky that nothing happened to the McClains or their property. As it is, the McClains could have sued Mr. Lee for his negligent actions, and if they prevailed, the court would have reached into his deep pockets for compensatory damages (money that the defendant pays to cover the out-of-pocket costs of the plaintiff’s injury) and possibly punitive damages (to punish Mr. Lee).
To make a case for negligence, four elements must be shown: duty, breach of that duty, causation, and damages. Mr. Lee had a duty to avoid any actions that would cause a reasonably foreseeable injury to another person. There is no evidence that he verified the information he was posting or that he checked the source of the information, which would have shown that the Zimmerman who’d lived at that address, George M. Zimmerman had not lived in Sanford for nearly 20 years.
To determine causation, a court looks to see if a reasonable person could have foreseen the harmful consequences of her actions. In this instance, the question a court would have to grapple with would be whether or not Mr. Lee could have foreseen that his actions would imperil someone’s life or property.
What possible explanation is there for Mr. Lee to tweet what he thought was a murderer’s home address other than to encourage his Twitter followers to harass the people living there? Mr. Lee may not have wanted an angry mob to cause damage to anyone or anything. Maybe he just wanted people to stand outside the address he tweeted and politely hold protest signs. But considering that the New Black Panthers had offered a bounty for Mr. Zimmerman’s capture – something well covered by the media – and the anger we all feel about what happened to Trayvon Martin, it was easily foreseeable that harm would have come to the property or persons at that address.
It was basically a call for a lynch mob, which had been gathering online for days, while Mr. Zimmerman was in hiding, his whereabouts unknown.
The law states that a person is guilty of criminal solicitation if he has the requisite intent and engages in “conduct constituting a felony that has as an element the use, attempted use, or threatened use of physical force against property or against the person of another in violation of the laws of the United States.” The crime of solicitation occurs whether or not the crime that is sought out actually occurs or not.
So whether or not someone actually kills – or even tries to kill – Mr. Zimmerman to collect the reward is irrelevant because the crime of solicitation has already been committed.
If Mr. Zimmerman were to be murdered by someone seeking the reward (a crime punishable by life in prison or the death penalty), members of the New Black Panther Party whose intent can be proven could face twenty years in prison. If the Department of Justice decides to file charges against Mr. Nzinga, these charges will likely include a charge of conspiracy to commit murder that could implicate several members of the organization.
We all want to see justice done for Trayvon Martin. But while the public has a right to be angry, we should not forget our obligation to society.
Vigilantism is not justice.