Beating a criminal rap thanks to Florida’s controversial Stand-Your-Ground law doesn’t automatically shield you from civil lawsuits.
That was the decision Thursday by the Florida Supreme Court, which said that “immunity” granted by criminal-court judges don’t apply to lawsuits filed in civil court.
Justices ruled in the case of a man named Nirav Patel, who struck a Tampa bar patron in the eye with a cocktail glass. A criminal-court judge ruled that Patel was acting in self-defense and granted him immunity from a charge of felony battery.
But the injured patron, Ketan Kumar, filed a lawsuit against Patel, who argued that the criminal court’s decision applied in the newly filed civil case. The local appeals court agreed.
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The Florida Supreme Court, however, reversed the decision, ruling that a judge in a civil case would have to determine whether Patel was immune from a civil lawsuit.
Critics have long maintained that Florida’s 2005 Stand Your Ground law has fostered a shoot-first mentality among citizens and given criminals a pass at justice.
The law eliminated a citizen’s duty to retreat before using lethal force while facing someone who may pose a threat of death or “great bodily harm.” And more vexing for prosecutors, it gave judges more leeway to dismiss a criminal charge before the case is ever heard by a jury.
In South Florida, courts have granted immunity to defendants charged in controversial killings. That includes Miami’s Greyston Garcia, who beat a murder charge after stabbing a car-radio thief who wielded only a bag full of car radios. The appeals courts also granted immunity to a security guard who fatally shot two unarmed men in a Miami-Dade Chili’s parking lot after a fight.
This year, the Legislature updated the law, forcing prosecutors to shoulder the legal burden of disproving a self-defense claim at the “immunity” hearings. Statewide, prosecutors opposed the bill, which was pushed by politically powerful National Rifle Association.
A Miami-Dade judge ruled the updated law is unconstitutional, setting up another round of appellate legal battles.
Thursday’s ruling by the Florida Supreme Court does not mean civil-court judges cannot grant immunity to someone being sued.
That’s already happened in one high-profile Miami case – that of Reynaldo Muñoz, the deaf man fatally shot by a homeowner while trying to steal a WaveRunner from the back of a home in Miami Shores.
Prosecutors did not charge homeowner Yasmin Davis, but did not rule the shooting was “justified.” Muñoz’s family sued the Davises, but Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Stanford Blake — after a lengthy hearing poring over the evidence — ruled they were immune from the lawsuit.
Muñoz’s family appealed the ruling and lost.