TALLAHASSEE -- When lawmakers passed the “warning shot” bill during the 2014 session, a key selling point was it would prevent cases like that of Marissa Alexander, a Jacksonville woman sentenced to 20 years in prison after firing a shot to ward off her estranged husband.
But the 26-page bill, awaiting action by Gov. Rick Scott, not only wouldn’t prevent future cases like Alexander’s, but it seems to shrink — not expand — the protections of Florida’s infamous “Stand Your Ground” law.
While current law justifies deadly force in a home or vehicle if a person “reasonably” believes it’s needed to prevent death or bodily harm, House Bill 89 adds the word “imminent” so the threat would need to be looming for someone to legally use deadly force. The new modifier raises the bar on “Stand Your Ground” in a way not easily measured, adding confusion to those using, enforcing and interpreting it, said Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri. “The governor shouldn’t sign this because it’s not legislation that the average person or cop on the street can understand,” Gualtieri said. “It sets up a whole new standard for 'Stand Your Ground’ that’s untested by any case law because it’s brand new.”
The sponsor of the bill, state Rep. Neil Combee, R-Polk City, said it’s not his intention to weaken the 2005 law, but acknowledged he doesn’t exactly know what his legislation does. “I’m probably not the best person to ask if it makes 'Stand Your Ground’ weaker or stronger,” Combee said. “I’m not a lawyer. You can show a dozen lawyers this bill and they’ll give you a dozen interpretations. What counts is the judge.” Gualtieri said the bill’s impenetrability should be grounds for Scott to veto it. “I’m a lawyer and it took me hours to read this and I still don’t understand it,” Gualtieri said. “It’s too confusing.” Scott spokesman John Tupps said the governor “supports the Second Amendment. He will review this legislation when it reaches his desk.” For now, Gualtieri’s objections are his own. The Florida Sheriff’s Association supported the bill when it was under consideration by lawmakers. Spokesman Eric Pounders said Gualtieri’s concerns will be reviewed by the group, but he knew of no other sheriff raising the issue. While the bill appears to weaken the portion of “stand your ground” that applies to defending one’s home or vehicle, it leaves alone parts of the law pertaining to general self defense and the defense of others. Combee said his intent was to provide a legal remedy for what he viewed to be a miscarriage of justice in cases like Alexander’s. To scare off her husband, who had a history of domestic abuse and who she felt at the time was threatening her, Alexander fired a bullet at a wall in 2010. She didn’t hit anyone. A 33-year-old mother of three with a clean criminal record, Alexander was convicted of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and sentenced in 2012 to 20 years in prison because of 1999’s “10-20-Life” law, which requires a 20-year sentence for anyone firing a gun while committing a felony (and 25 years if anyone is hit). In a retrial, Alexander faces a sentence of 60 years, 20 years for everyone present when she fired the gun. Combee said he consulted with Greg Newburn, Florida director for Families Against Mandatory Minimums, which had already drafted language to address situations like Alexander’s.
Similar legislation stalled last year, but with the publicity of the Alexander case, HB 89 breezed through. Democratic supporters cited a more fair application of the “stand your ground” law. When asked if his bill falls short of protecting people like Alexander, Combee said he didn’t know. “It was my intent from the start to try to do something to help her and those in her situation,” Combee said. “That was my goal, and if we didn’t get it right, I’ll try again.” Neither he nor Newburn came up with the language that added “imminent” as a new standard for legally using deadly force in the home. That language was added in a 24-page amendment by Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, and adopted on March 18. Gaetz refused comment, telling a reporter, “I don’t comment on stories that you write.” Combee and Newburn said Gaetz provided the amendment after consulting with longtime NRA lobbyist Marion Hammer. Hammer didn’t return repeated phone calls. Newburn said he doubted that Gaetz and Hammer, ardent supporters of gun rights, would have backed legislation weakening “stand your ground.” But that’s exactly what the bill does, Gualtieri said. “If this is signed, you will get a number of scenarios where 'stand your ground’ no longer applies,” he said. “If someone breaks into my house, do I have to wait to determine if the threat is imminent? This makes it more dangerous for our citizens.”