By now, the tragic death of Trayvon Martin last month in Sanford, Florida has become national news.
Zimmerman, an HOA appointed volunteer “Neighborhood Watch Captain”, followed and shot to death the 17-year old Martin whose only weapon was a box of skittles and an iced tea.
Increasing public pressure criticizing possible racial profiling and police inaction has resulted in the police chief temporarily stepping down. Governor Rick Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi appointed a special prosecutor to investigate the case. The police, however, say that Florida’s “stand your ground” law prohibited them from arresting Zimmerman at the time they interviewed him, based on Zimmerman’s statements. Since then, much more information has surfaced, including 911 tapes that show Zimmerman admitted to following the boy, even after the 911 operator told him “We don’t need you to do that.” Zimmerman claimed the boy was wearing a hoodie (in the rain), “looked suspicious” like he was “on drugs” and complained that “[t]hese a- -holes always get away”.
Public controversy has focused on the 2005 “stand your ground” law that no longer requires a person to retreat, even if possible, before using deadly force against a perceived personal danger. Martin’s tragic death has caused many to question whether the prior self defense law was insufficient and whether the 2005 law was necessary, or whether the new law encourages vigilantism, causing more harm than good. That is a worthy topic of serious debate.
Unfortunately, the HOA was a part of this tragedy. What due diligence did the HOA undertake before appointing Zimmerman to a position of “Neighborhood Watch Captain”? Did the board ask about Zimmerman’s background, which we now know was not “squeaky clean”? Did the board ask if he carried a weapon? What training did Zimmerman have? Did the board ask any of these questions, before endorsing him in the HOA newsletter as the “go to” guy for community security?
According to the National Sheriff’s Association, the HOA community never registered with any official neighborhood watch program. Why not? Did the HOA even know or verify that neighborhood volunteers were following appropriate guidelines?
We now know that Zimmerman certainly did not follow the guidelines promulgated by the National Sheriff’s Association for neighborhood watch programs. Chris Tutko who runs the program stated that the manual specifically states that citizens should never pursue or take action on their suspicions. Their job is to report, not shoot. Neighborhood watch volunteers have no more authority than an ordinary citizen. According to NPR, Tutko emphasized that “Firearms are definitely out” for a neighborhood watch program.
Zimmerman was a one-man volunteer armed patrol, that the HOA newsletter endorsed, according to the Martin family attorney’s office. Whether this particular HOA has any civil liability in these circumstances is uncertain, because all the facts are not yet known. However, this horrible tragedy might have been prevented. It certainly should give association boards pause when considering neighborhood watch programs. HOA boards have a fiduciary responsibility to the members to conduct due diligence in matters this important.