TAMPA – The Florida Supreme Court is poised to hear arguments next month on whether changes lawmakers made to the state’s controversial “stand your ground” self-defense law should apply to older cases.
Two years ago, the Florida Legislature – with backing from the National Rifle Association – adjusted the law. The new law shifts the legal burden of proof from defendants to prosecutors to prove whether self-defense claims are justified. That means prosecutors now have to prove that a shooter who kills someone and then claims a stand your ground defense wasn’t actually acting in self defense – a higher bar than before.
Many were critical of the change, including Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren.
“It was just an unnecessary bill to put in,” Warren said of the changes the Legislature made. “It doesn’t actually protect innocent victims. All it does is embolden violent criminals.”
A shooter who wants to claim the stand your ground defense has to hold an additional hearing in front of a judge and convince the judge that they feared for their life when they fired (instead of retreating). Prosecutors now have to disprove a shooter’s claim using “clear and convincing evidence,” a standard that differs from the customary “beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Warren calls it “a solution in search of a problem,” and points out that the question of whether the 2017 legislative changes now apply to older cases is leaving too many cases in limbo. Appellate courts have been split about whether the burden of proof change should apply to defendants who were arrested before the 2017 law took effect but whose cases were pending at the time. The Florida Supreme Court is expected to rule on that dispute.
“All it’s doing is creating gridlock in the system,” Warren told the Florida Phoenix on Friday after speaking in Tampa, “Not only gridlock at the judicial level, because we have different decisions on appeal and we have inconsistent rulings and it’s going to have to be resolved by the Supreme Court, which is going to take some time. But also because now every single case in our system involving violence or threat of violence, domestic violence cases that are misdemeanors – all the way up to homicides, we have to go through a second trial essentially disproving an offense before we can even start prosecuting a case.”
The Florida Legislature passed the stand your ground law in 2005 – the first law of its kind in the nation. Ten years later, a St. Louis University study found “disturbing” evidence of a “quantifiable racial component” in the law in Florida. The study of stand your ground cases found a leniency in convictions if the victim was not white. After controlling for other variables, the study found that a defendant who shot someone and then invoked the stand your ground defense was twice as likely to be convicted if the case involved white victims compared to non-white victims.
Miami Gardens Democratic state Senator Oscar Braynon has filed legislation for the upcoming session that would revise the burden of proof in such cases from “clear and convincing evidence” to a “preponderance of the evidence,” which the person claiming stand your ground can use in court.