State Politics

Florida task force seeks major overhaul to Stand Your Ground law

The statewide task force to review Florida’s Stand Your Ground law will begin its work Tuesday, but a state senator who formed his own task force is recommending the law be rewritten to make it more difficult for defendants to claim self-defense.

Sen. Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, said Monday the controversial law should be revised to allow law enforcement officers more leeway to investigate shootings of unarmed victims and make the self-defense protection less available to criminals looking for an out.

“We wanted to make sure that we put together an accurate report, to give the governor direction, to give the Legislature direction and to give the governor’s task force direction,” he said. “Every day this law is being used and misused in courtrooms throughout the state of Florida.”

His task force recommended that those claiming self-defense should have the opportunity to make their claim before a grand jury, which can decide whether to bring charges or dismiss. The group also pushed for more clear wording in the statute and a new system to track all the cases where stand your ground is used as a defense. The 18-member group did not recommend that the law be repealed.

Gov. Rick Scott’s official task force on public safety meets Tuesday to establish its mission and plan future meetings. That 19-member panel will put forth recommendations to the governor and the Legislature about Stand Your Ground and other safety issues.

Smith was not assigned to the public safety task force and said his request to present his findings to the group on Tuesday was denied. The inaugural meeting is mainly for organizational purposes, and public testimony will not be allowed. The public will be able to speak at future meetings.

“I guess I’ll attend and maybe put [the recommendations] on their windshield wipers in their cars campaign-style afterwards,” he said.

Like Smith’s task force, the governor’s panel includes both prosecutors and criminal defense attorneys, who often square of in court in self -defense cases.

Mark Seiden, a Miami criminal defense lawyer who claims he has never lost a self-defense trial, said he will come to Tallahassee with an open mind on the law but respect for the right to bear arms.

“There are certainly many positive points to the law and whatever we do we should keep in mind that our state and our country have a strong Second Amendment background,” he said.

Katherine Fernandez Rundle, Miami-Dade’s state attorney, said her office has seen stand your ground defenses used in hundreds of cases, with some trying to apply it to domestic violence crimes. She referenced the case of Sherdavia Jenkins, the 9-year-old girl caught in crossfire of a Liberty City gunfight. The shooter unsuccessfully claimed stand your ground.

Fernandez Rundle said she would keep an open mind, but she’s found the law has had "very little consistency in application."

"Our experience here is that there have been some tragic unintended consequences and that there have been some unfortunate legal consequences," she said.

Smith said his task force reviewed about 100 cases where a stand-your-ground defense was used successfully.

In several cases, task force members agreed that the law had been used by guilty people to escape justice.

“This is being used in many, many cases,” he said. “This is being used with a prostitute killing her john, this is being used in gang fights, this is being used everywhere.”

(Herald/Times reporter Katie Sanders contributed to this story.)

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