A bill that would grant immunity to Floridians who show guns or fire warning shots in self-defense could be poised to pass this year after failing to get a hearing in 2013.
The so-called "warning-shot" bill (SB 448), which would amend the state's controversial "stand your ground" self-defense law, cleared its first Senate panel on Wednesday.
After listening to descriptions of Floridians serving 20-year sentences for firing warning shots to defend themselves or others, the Senate Criminal Justice Committee unanimously passed the bill by committee Chairman Greg Evers, R-Baker.
One member of the panel, Sen. Charlie Dean, a former Citrus County sheriff, even asked House sponsor Neil Combee to consider adding an amendment that would expunge the criminal records of people charged in this way; Combee said he would.
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"What part of 'innocence' do we not understand?" Dean demanded.
Combee, a Polk City Republican, first sponsored the bill after hearing about Marissa Alexander, a Jacksonville woman who was sentenced to 20 years in prison under the 10-20-Life sentencing law for firing a gun into a wall during a dispute with her husband.
Combee described Alexander's sentence as an example of the "negative unintended consequences" of 10-20-Life, which requires mandatory-minimum prison terms for gun-related crimes.
Under the 10-20-Life law, possessing a gun while committing certain crimes is punishable by at least 10 years in prison, discharging a gun while committing those crimes is punishable by at least 20 years in prison, and hurting or killing someone during those crimes is punishable by 25 years to life in prison.
The 2013 version of Combee's bill sought to amend 10-20-Life rather than "stand your ground," and it was opposed by the Florida Sheriffs Association and many prosecutors and law enforcement officers who argued that the sentencing bill was working too well to be altered.
So the 2014 bills by Combee and Evers would amend "stand your ground" instead. The bills, which are identical, would permit people who are being attacked and fear for their lives to display guns, threaten to use the weapons or fire warning shots under the same circumstances by which they could legally shoot to kill.
That switch sped the bill to passage in the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee in November.
It also gained allies for the bill who did not support it last year, such as the Florida Public Defender Association.
"We think it's an important clarification to the existing self-defense laws, that someone could be justified in threatening to use force and not have to actually use force to enjoy the protections of the self-defense laws and 'stand your ground,' " Stacy Scott, the public defender for the 8th Judicial Circuit, told the Senate panel on Wednesday. "The statutes aren't clear on that."
National Rifle Association lobbyist Marion Hammer, who has worked with Combee on the bill since last year, said it was needed to curb prosecutorial abuses under 10-20-Life.
"Prosecutors are using it wrongly to prosecute people who, in an act of self-defense or defense of a loved one, threaten to use force because they really don't want to shoot somebody," Hammer said. "If you actually shoot an attacker, the law protects you. But if you merely threaten to shoot an attacker and the attacker runs away, some prosecutors will still try to put you in prison for 10 to 20 years. Some, not all, but any is too many."
The committee seemed ready to move to a vote, but Gainesville-based state attorney Bill Cervone of the 8th Judicial Circuit asked to speak.
"I personally feel a little bit pilloried sitting here and listening to some of this," Cervone told lawmakers. "And something that's not being said is that there are two sides to every one of these cases. If somebody is in prison for one of these situations, it's because a judge and a jury rejected his version claiming self-defense."
Evers said he knew of local cases in which people had been wrongly charged for defending themselves, including a 74-year-old retiree who displayed a shotgun to protect his daughter.
"Senator, I have no idea what that case is about," Cervone began.
"But I do," Evers broke in. "That's the reason for this bill."
"Senator, if the Legislature is concerned about these (aggravated) assaults, take them out of 10-20-Life," Cervone said.
"Well, I think this bill does that," Evers replied.
The panel then passed the measure unanimously.
But the bill's best omen for success this year may be that the Florida Sheriffs Association will remain neutral. On Wednesday, association spokeswoman Sarrah Carroll confirmed that the group would not oppose the measure.
Now called the Threatened Use of Force Act, the bill faces two more House committees and two more Senate committees.