On February 26, unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin was shot by a self-appointed neighborhood watch leader on a suburban street.
Mr Zimmerman, who fatally shot Trayvon Martin, said he killed the teen in self-defense, according to police. Zimmerman, whose family says he is Hispanic, despite being described as white in a police report, has not been arrested or charged in the killing of the black teenager.
The story has provoked a swelling of outrage — especially on social media. Questions have been flying. Most recent is whether or not the justice department can step in and prosecute the killing as a federal hate crime.
Below, Sanford police chief, Bill Lee, answers frequently asked questions, via a letter from City Manager Norton N. Bonaparte Jr:
Why was George Zimmerman not arrested the night of the shooting?
When the Sanford Police Department arrived at the scene of the incident, Mr. Zimmerman provided a statement claiming he acted in self-defense which at the time was supported by physical evidence and testimony. By Florida statute, law enforcement was PROHIBITED from making an arrest based on the facts and circumstances they had at the time. Additionally, when any police officer makes an arrest for any reason, the officer MUST swear and affirm that he/she is making the arrest in good faith and with probable cause. If the arrest is done maliciously and in bad faith, the officer and the city may be held liable.
Why the 911 tapes are not yet released?
There are exemptions to the public records laws for active criminal intelligence and for ongoing investigations. In this instance, the 911 calls made by neighbors in the subdivision, and the non-emergency call made by Mr. Zimmerman are all key to the investigation by Sanford Police Department
Why did Mr. Zimmerman have a firearm in his possession while acting in the role of a neighborhood watch member?
Mr. Zimmerman holds a concealed weapon permit issued from the State of Florida. He is authorized to carry the weapon in a concealed manner wherever Florida Statute dictates. Neighborhood Watch programs are designed for members of a neighborhood to be “eyes and ears” for police and to watch out for their neighbors.
Mr. Zimmerman was not acting outside the legal boundaries of Florida Statute by carrying his weapon when this incident occurred.
Was the killing a federal hate crime asks NPR?
Civil rights groups cheered the news that the Justice Department would look into the case of Trayvon Martin…But the bar for the Justice Department to make a federal case is high. Ultimately, it has few options at its disposal when it comes to investigating the teen’s death.
Former prosecutors say one key tool passed early in the Obama administration might apply in this case: the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. The law makes it a federal crime for someone to engage in violence because of a victim’s race or color.
There’s a reason for that, says Christina Swarns of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund: the troubling legacy of the 1950s and 60s, when many people may have gotten away with murder because local police didn’t do their jobs.
“This goes back to a long history in this country, where African-Americans are victims, and state authorities failed to act in a timely and appropriate manner,” Swarns says. “African-American communities have repeatedly had to resort to asking for federal government intervention in these cases.”
Samuel Bagenstos, a law professor who worked in the Obama Justice Department, says “a crucial question in determining whether the Shepard-Byrd statute applies is going to be whether Zimmerman acted with discriminatory intent.”