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Feds may not have jurisdiction in Trayvon Martin case

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 25, 2012 - President Obama and the Justice Department may have trouble finding legal authority to prosecute George Zimmerman even if the facts indicate that the killing of Trayvon Martin was unjustified, legal experts say.

Roger Goldman, a professor at Saint Louis University Law School and expert on police misconduct, points out that there might not be the necessary "state action" because Zimmerman was a member of a neighbor watch, not a police officer. Without state action, the 14th Amendment can't apply, and the federal government has difficulty bringing a prosecution.

NPR had a story detailing the difficulties facing federal prosecutors.

Also, a former Miami police chief wrote an oped about why he thinks the stand your ground law is dangerous.

One possible, but less likely argument, Goldman wrote in an email, is that Florida's “stand your ground” law might be seen as state action that empowered  Zimmerman to act against Martin.

"Suppose Florida law is interpreted to permit Zimmerman to hunt down Trayvon under the stand your ground law so that he was acting pursuant to that statute, i.e., he was encouraged to act by the law, so you then have state action," wrote Goldman.

A recent federal law - the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act - might be used to prosecute Zimmerman, but that requires proof of racial intent. Some think that Zimmerman muttered a racial epithet that was picked up during a 911 call, but others say it was an expletive and that Zimmerman has many African-American friends.

William H. Freivogel is director of the School of Journalism at Southern Illinois University Carbondale and a professor at the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute. Previously, he worked for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch for 34 years, serving as assistant Washington Bureau Chief and deputy editorial editor. He covered the U.S. Supreme Court while in Washington. He is a graduate of Kirkwood High School, Stanford University and Washington University Law School. He is a member of the Missouri Bar.

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