TALLAHASSEE -- A Senate panel on Tuesday will consider two proposals to amend the Stand Your Ground self-defense law that would require law enforcement agencies to set guidelines for neighborhood watch programs.
One of the bills was filed by Sen. David Simmons, the Republican senator who drafted the original statute nearly a decade ago.
“The Stand Your Ground law is an excellent law, but there are some improvements that can be made,” said Simmons, of Altamonte Springs.
Tuesday’s hearing marks the first time state lawmakers will consider revising the self-defense law since George Zimmerman’s acquittal in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Tom Lee, R-Brandon, said he supports moving forward with modifications “in a bipartisan way.”
But whether a similar proposal would gain traction in the Florida House of Representatives remains to be seen. Rep. Matt Gaetz, a Fort Walton Beach Republican tasked with chairing a House review of the law, has said he will not change “one damn comma” in the existing statute.
Gaetz did not return calls seeking comment.
Florida’s Stand Your Ground law passed in 2005 with widespread approval from both Democrats and Republicans. But it became a political lightning rod in 2012, when Zimmerman shot and killed Martin, an unarmed black teenager from Miami Gardens.
The controversy only intensified when Zimmerman was acquitted earlier this year. While Zimmerman never claimed a Stand Your Ground defense, the wording of the law appeared in the jury instructions.
Simmons’ bill would require sheriffs’ offices and municipal police departments to craft guidelines for neighborhood watch programs, such as the one for which Zimmerman volunteered. The guidelines would prohibit neighborhood watch volunteers from “confronting or attempting to apprehend a person suspected of improper or unlawful activity” unless necessary to help another person.
“We want to assure that participants in neighborhood watch programs are not self-proclaimed vigilantes…,” Simmons said. “They don’t need to be pursuing and confronting would-be suspects.”
As Judiciary Committee chairman, Lee has pitched language that would require the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to create a uniform training program for participants in neighborhood watch programs. The training would address “the unlawful use of force and conduct that may unreasonably create or escalate a confrontation between a neighborhood watch participant and a person suspected of unlawful activity,” among other topics.
Simmons supports the amendment, he said.
Simmons’ proposal would also clarify that the law should not be used to hinder police investigations, and that innocent bystanders can sue if they are injured by a person who is standing his or her ground.
A separate bill from Senate Minority Leader Chris Smith, a Fort Lauderdale Democrat, has similar language about required guidelines for neighborhood watch programs. But it also prevents individuals from initiating or “unreasonably escalating” a deadly conflict — and then using the Stand Your Ground law to claim immunity from prosecution.
“Even if you think what Mr. Zimmerman did was legal, it’s important to show that it wasn’t appropriate,” Smith said. “We shouldn’t follow people, begin altercations and then end those altercations by taking a life.”
Lee is hoping to build bipartisan consensus around a combined bill.
“There are a lot of stakeholders, members and special-interest groups who have different ideas about the changes that should be made to Stand Your Ground,” he said. “I’m trying to corral them and shepherd those ideas through the process, at least in the Senate.”
What will happen in the lower chamber remains unclear.
House Speaker Will Weatherford called for a review of the Stand Your Ground law this summer. But Gaetz, the designated chairman, said the hearing couldn’t take place during this month’s committee meetings because Rep. Alan Williams was unable to attend. Williams, D-Tallahassee, has filed a bill seeking to repeal the law.
On Monday, Williams acknowledged that he would be out of town for “legislative travels.” But the Stand Your Ground hearing in the House, he said, “was not contingent on me.”
Williams said he was glad to see the Senate make the first move.
“Having the Senate go first will put the House in a better position to have the conversation,” he said.
Kathleen McGrory can be reached at kmcgrory@MiamiHerald.com.