Bad ideas never die for good in the Florida Legislature. They are just resurrected the next year with new bill numbers. That is the case with a renewed effort to stand the criminal justice system on its head by making it easier for defendants to hide behind Florida’s “stand your ground” law and get away with murder. The reasoning is just as flawed as it was last year, and lawmakers should kill it again this year.
Sen. Rob Bradley’s bill, SB 128, squeaked through the Senate Judiciary Committee this week by a 5-4 vote with Republicans supporting it and Democrats opposing it. If history repeats itself, the Fleming Island Republican’s legislation will sail along in the Senate as it did last year. It will again be up to the House to stand with prosecutors, law enforcement officers and common sense and reject it.
This is just another attempt by the same legislators who want guns openly carried everywhere to make it easier to shoot someone and successfully claim self-defense. Now, defendants invoking “stand your ground” have to show by a preponderance of evidence in a pretrial hearing that they qualify for that immunity. Bradley’s bill would require prosecutors to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant cannot invoke “stand your ground.” That flips the burden of proof from the defendant to the prosecutor and sets an even higher standard for prosecutors to be successful than defendants have now.
This is also another direct shot by Republican lawmakers at the Florida Supreme Court. In a 2015 opinion, the court kept the burden of proof on the defense in “stand your ground” cases. It wrote that placing the burden on the defendant was “principled, practical and supported by” legal precedent. No other state with a similar immunity clause puts the burden of proof on prosecutors, and the court noted that even defendants who fail to win “stand your ground” hearings can claim self-defense at trial.
Bradley’s legislation would overturn the Supreme Court’s opinion and is an attempt to discourage prosecutors from filing charges, offering a virtual guarantee of immunity for anyone who shoots someone. The 2005 “stand your ground” law, which should be repealed rather than strengthened, already provides too much protection and encourages gun owners to shoot rather than to walk away from confrontations.
The Supreme Court noted the legislative intent of the “stand your ground” law was to provide the immunity to “a limited class of defendants.” The situation has turned out to be the opposite. A 2012 Tampa Bay Times investigation examined 200 cases invoking the law and found it had been used to defend drug dealers, killers and other violent offenders even when they initiated the fight. That’s what happens when you pass a law eliminating the duty to retreat if you can safely escape.
This week’s committee hearing is only the first skirmish in an upcoming legislative session that will be awash with pro-gun legislation backed by the National Rifle Association. The “stand your ground” changes will be joined by efforts to allow gun owners with concealed weapon permits to openly carry and to take their guns to university campuses, airports and other areas that are now off limits. All of these bad ideas failed to pass last year, and they have not gotten any better.