TALLAHASSEE -- A plan to strengthen Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law during the 2016 legislative session died an early death in the state House on Tuesday, after a subcommittee rejected the legislation on a deadlocked vote.
House Criminal Justice Subcommittee Chairman Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, joined with the panel's five Democrats to oppose a bill by Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, that would have given defendants who claim self-defense more protection from prosecution.
House Bill 169 would have required prosecutors to prove "beyond a reasonable doubt" -- during a procedural hearing before trial -- why a defendant's self-defense claim isn't valid.
In contrast, Florida courts, culminating in a Florida Supreme Court ruling in July, had previously ruled that the defendant had the burden of proving their self-defense claim and why they shouldn't be prosecuted.
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Trujillo, a former prosecutor, said he supports the way "Stand Your Ground" operates now, and the burden should remain on the defendant who claims self defense.
"If you're alleging something, you have to prove it," Trujillo said.
Rep. Chris Latvala, R-Clearwater, was absent for the vote, resulting in the 6-6 tie.
The surprise result was preceded by two late-filed amendments from Rep. Dave Kerner, D-Lake Worth, which he said he proposed as "an insurance policy" with the ultimate intent to kill the bill in committee. Both amendments passed by a 6-5 vote, because Rep. Ray Pilon, R-Sarasota, was absent for those, along with Latvala.
Should the bill have advanced, Kerner's amendments would have drastically changed the proposal's intent by requiring defendants to do more than just allege self-defense -- they'd have to show a "preponderance of evidence" to back it up -- and by eliminating proposed financial penalties for prosecutors, should a defendant successfully get their case dismissed after they argued self-defense during the preliminary hearing.
"If we didn't have the votes to kill it, at least it really would have gutted the bill," Kerner told reporters after the hearing.
Baxley was furious about Kerner's tactics, and he criticized him for not even broaching the amendments with him before the hearing -- an expected act of courtesy among lawmakers.
The Senate companion to Baxley's bill, introduced by Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, is scheduled to get its second vetting on Wednesday before the Senate Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Subcommittee. But without a mechanism to pass it in the House, the issue is likely dead for the 2016 session.
Supported by public defenders and the National Rifle Association, Baxley said his legislation would have fortified fundamental rights of self-defense and of being innocent until proven guilty.
"We would rather a guilty person go free then convict an innocent, particularly someone who was defending themselves and others from harm," Baxley said. "We need this legislation."
State prosecutors and victims advocates said Baxley's plan would have bucked standard judicial procedures, and they said they feared it would force prosecutors to essentially try a case twice: once before a judge in the preliminary hearing and again before a jury, if the case advanced to trial.
The bill was filed in direct response to the Florida Supreme Court's 5-2 decision last summer, which affirmed the burden of proof for showing immunity under "Stand Your Ground" was on the defendant.
Conservative lawmakers on the panel blasted the judiciary for "usurping" legislative intent and "overstepping their bounds."
"This bill is about protecting the rights of the people; it is not about the convenience of prosecutors or the courts," agreed Marion Hammer, the NRA's longtime lobbyist in Tallahassee.
Florida's 10-year-old "Stand Your Ground" Law allows residents to use deadly force in defense of their lives or property in certain circumstances. Baxley sponsored the 2005 bill that created the law.