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Evening Focus – Florida Task Force: Change “Stand Your Ground”

May 1, 2012

Our Evening Focus

Evening Focus – Florida Task Force: Change “Stand Your Ground”

A Florida Legislative Task Force commissioned by Gov. Rick Scott recommended changes to the “Stand Your Ground” law yesterday. (More)

Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law has drawn widespread criticism in the wake of the Trayvon Martin shooting. Governor Rick Scott (R) commissioned a task force from the Florida Legislature to investigate the law and propose changes. Yesterday the task force unanimously recommended six changes:

  • Cases should be presented to a Grand Jury to allow for a cross section of Society to determine what a reasonable person would do in that case – While prosecutors already have this authority, the change would require a grand jury hearing in any homicide case where “Stand Your Ground” is raised.
  • Educate the public and law enforcement – This would not change the law, but the task force believe both the public and law enforcement “should understand when the use of deadly force (and other force) is lawful and when it is not” and be clear that “the law does not entitle a person to be a vigilante.”
  • Create a system to track self-defense claims in Florida – Self-defense claims are currently not recorded on state-wide databases, making it very difficult to determine how many people have raised “Stand Your Ground” defenses and how many were legitimate.
  • Amend the Imminent Requirement – Amend the statute to require that a person claiming self-defense “reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent [imminent] death or great bodily harm.” The imminence requirement exists in one section of the law, but not in another.
  • Change the Law’s Title – The law is presently titled “Use of Force in Defense of Others,” a situation covered by another law. The task force propose the title “Use of Force in Defense of Property.”
  • Allow Detaining – Amend Florida Statute 776.032 to delete “arrest and detention” from the definition of “criminal prosecution,” ensuring that persons claiming a “Stand Your Ground” defense can be arrested and detained during investigations.

The task force also offered five “consensus recommendations,” each with dissenting views included:

  • Make Presumption Rebuttable – This would make the “Stand Your Ground” defense inapplicable if the alleged attacker is unarmed or fleeing, or create a rebuttable presumption that the use of force was unreasonable if the alleged attacker is unarmed or fleeing, and provide concrete guidelines to direct judges in applying the “Stand Your Ground” provision. A dissenting member argued that these are findings of fact to be decided by judges.
  • Remove the Presumptions – This would remove the presumption of reasonable defense, or make that presumption rebuttable (see above). The task force consensus noted that an irrebuttable presumption of reasonable defense may be unconstitutional. Dissenting members rejected that argument while supporting a rebuttable presumption.
  • Eliminate the Presumption of Reasonable Fear – The task force consensus was that this provision “converts an issue of fact into an issue of law,” and the objective reasonableness of fear should be decided by a jury. Dissenting members argued that “reasonable” is a well-defined legal term and need not be changed.
  • Define Unlawful Activity – The “Stand Your Ground” defense does not apply if the person is engaged in “unlawful activity,” but the statute does not specify what that covers. The consensus would define that as any violation of Florida criminal law. Dissenting members argued this is obvious and unnecessary.
  • Clarify the Role of Provocation – Florida’s core self-defense law does not allow an initial aggressor to claim self-defense, but the “Stand Your Ground” provision does not specify that. Dissenting members argued that the core self-defense law principles also apply to “Stand Your Ground” defenses.

The task force also discussed repealing the “Stand Your Ground” law entirely, but did not recommend that change. The appendix lists several cases where “Stand Your Ground” was claimed in situations the task force believed inappropriate, including a long-standing dispute between neighbors that turned deadly.

While I favor a full repeal of “Stand Your Ground,” most of the task force proposals would improve the statute and might help prevent further tragedies lie the death of Trayvon Martin.

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6 Responses to “Evening Focus – Florida Task Force: Change “Stand Your Ground””

  1. NCrissieB Says:

    Although the task force discussed repealing “Stand Your Ground” entirely, they did not recommend that. One of the dissenting members wrote this:

    I am pretty sure that the concern addressed by immunity is that an average citizen can find himself or herself facing a homicide charge and the stress of trial and verdict when simply defending their home or family, and they should be spared having to go to trial where upfront we could know they were acting in self-defense. I personally have not seen the cases prior to SYG where prosecutors have pursued cases where there isn’t a colorable argument that the defendant did not act in self-defense, but I know that the “common wisdom” behind the law’s passage is that they did exist and “innocent” citizens were needlessly put through the ordeal of a trial. It seems that giving the defendant a right to have a grand jury indictment and appear (if he chooses) before the grand jury addresses this concern within the traditional framework of Anglo-American criminal procedure without raising the many problems associated with the out-of-whole-cloth solution of immunity. This right might help allay concerns of the “innocent” homeowner having to go through a full trial where a strong basis for a self-defense claim exists without all of the problems that attach to the immunity provision (a provision I have not seen in any other criminal statute I am aware of). [Emphasis added.]

    I could not verify the statement that no prosecutor took a homicide case to trial – prior to the passage of “Stand Your Ground” – without “a colorable argument that the defendant did not act in self-defense.” I’m sure the NRA and others who support the law would cite any case where a jury acquitted based on self-defense as proof that such prosecutions were routine. Still, the specific incident that was used to promote the law was a woman who was followed through a parking garage by some men in a car, until she drew a gun from her purse and pointed at them. A police officer later told her that if he had been there, he would have arrested her because she did not flee … and that incident supposedly proved the need for “Stand Your Ground” laws.

    While they could not document a case where “Stand Your Ground” would have prevented an innocent person from facing a homicide trial, the task force listed several cases where “Stand Your Ground” was applied wrongly. When legislators pass laws to preempt hypothetical harms, they usually create real harms. That looks to have been the case with “Stand Your Ground,” just as with ever stricter voter ID laws.

    And as is so often true, the conservative hypothetical harm must be accepted as valid so long as the story is remotely plausible … while the real harms cited to challenge such laws must be proved beyond even the most speculative doubt.

    • addisnana Says:

      Brilliant piece Crissie! Not being an attorney, some of the legal distinctions escape me. The idea that the conservative memes rule and force progressives to disprove negatives galls me too. We are back to the analogy of progressive progress being like climbing mountains and hitting valleys along the way.

      The big question for me is what real problem were they trying to solve and what were the unintended consequences. Did they just make things worse in their attempts to solve an unreal problem? That question fascinates me.

  2. addisnana Says:

    Educate the public and law enforcement – This would not change the law, but the task force believe both the public and law enforcement “should understand when the use of deadly force (and other force) is lawful and when it is not” and be clear that “the law does not entitle a person to be a vigilante.”

    Color me suspicious on this recommendation. Depending on how it is done (i.e. by the NRA) I can see it just telling people inclined towards vigilanteism how to correctly stand their ground within the legal parameters.

    I would prefer the whole law be thrown out also. I think it encourages people to too often stand up for themselves by appointing themselves judge, jury and executioner. I also favor the registration of guns and the requirement that gun owners take a gun safety course. I think we have too many people that think that carrying a gun gives them ‘the right’ to shoot fellow citizens. The whole thing has me shaking my head and well aware that I hold a minority opinion when it comes to gun laws.

    • NCrissieB Says:

      I was skeptical of that as well, addisnana. And the report implied that was a ‘weak’ yet necessary proposal. Law enforcement officers and prosecutors should be trained in what conditions justify “Stand Your Ground,” and the rest of us should know what the law enforcement officers and prosecutors are being taught. So yes, it’s necessary … but it’s also very weak.

  3. HurrikanEagle Says:

    This was a very interesting and detailed view of the task force recommendations so thank you for that. I highly doubt the law will be overturned anytime soon, but if we can take more steps forward towards fixing the law and reducing the likelihood of other Trayvon Martins then its a step in the right direction.

  4. winterbanyan Says:

    Thanks for explaining this. I still don’t understand why we needed the law to begin with. In the hypothetical cited, I’m quite sure that if the police officer had arrested that woman in the garage, the prosecutor would not have pressed charges.

    Self-defense laws by and large were working just fine before Stand Your Ground. Investigation is necessary to determine self-defense, and a law which makes investigation even a smidgeon less likely disturb me.