TALLAHASSEE -- Showing the breadth of Florida’s "stand your ground" law, an appeals court Wednesday said the controversial legal defense can be used by a juvenile involved in a fight on a school bus.
The 4th District Court of Appeal overturned a Broward County circuit judge’s ruling that blocked the juvenile from using "stand your ground" to seek dismissal of a battery charge. Wednesday’s opinion only identifies the juvenile by the initials T.P. and doesn’t give his age, but it says the incident happened on a school bus taking students home from a middle school.
"In this case, T.P. had the right to assert a defense under (the stand-your-ground law),’’ the opinion said. "He was not engaged in an unlawful activity, and he had the right to be on the bus going home from school. He had no duty to retreat and, despite the trial court’s misgivings, had the right to ’meet force with force’ if he reasonably believed that such force was necessary to prevent great bodily harm to himself."
The ruling comes amid a national controversy about the law after Saturday’s acquittal of George Zimmerman in the 2012 shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford. Though Zimmerman ultimately relied on a self-defense argument, rather than the stand-your-ground law, the case has touched off widespread calls for Gov. Rick Scott and the Republican-controlled Legislature to repeal the law --- something they have shown no willingness to do.
Approved in 2005, the law says a person who is not doing anything illegal and gets attacked "has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself."
In the Broward County case, a school-bus driver testified that a girl, identified by the initials A.F., grabbed T.P.’s jacket as he started to get off the bus. The driver said A.F. pulled the boy onto a seat and punched him, with T.P. fighting back.
T.P. was later found guilty of battery. The opinion does not say whether the girl, who disputed the bus driver’s account, faced charges.
The circuit judge in the case incorrectly believed that "stand your ground" only applied to the defense of a home or a vehicle, not on a bus, said the appeals-court opinion, written by Judge Martha Warner and joined by Chief Judge Dorian Damoorgian and Judge Burton Conner.
"In fact, it (the law) is extremely broad in its grant of the right of a person to protect himself or herself in any situation where the person is not engaged in an unlawful activity and is in a place where the person is entitled to be,’’ the opinion said. "Although the trial court’s misgivings of applying it to a fight on a school bus may be well taken, it is not the place of the trial court, or this court, to refuse to apply the plain meaning of the statute."
The appeals court sent the case back to circuit court, where a judge will decide whether the case against T.P. should be dismissed. Wednesday’s opinion said the lower-court judge will have to consider evidence and determine whether the girl was the aggressor in the fight and whether T.P. reasonably believed that the force he used was needed to protect himself from great bodily harm.