Among 16 measures Gov. Rick Scott signed into law on Friday, he endorsed two high-profile bills that were linked by a late-session compromise: one that makes a significant change to Florida’s controversial “Stand Your Ground” law and another that fortifies the right to religious expression in public K-12 schools.
Effective immediately under SB 128, state attorneys will now bear the burden to prove in “Stand Your Ground” cases why a criminal defendant can’t claim immunity from prosecution.
The highly controversial legislation — two years in the making — was supported by the National Rifle Association, which argued it clarifies the intent of the “Stand Your Ground” law enacted 12 years ago.
But prosecutors and gun-rights groups vehemently fought the bill. They argued the new law will force state attorneys to essentially prosecute cases twice and will lead to a flood of self-defense claims because defendants will have virtually no risk in asserting a “Stand Your Ground” defense.
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“If a prosecutor doesn’t have the evidence to prevail at [a pre-trial] hearing … the prosecutor does not have sufficient evidence to win at trial,” Sen. Rob Bradley — a Fleming Island Republican and former prosecutor who shepherded the bill for two sessions — said when an earlier version of the bill passed the Senate in March.
“Innocent people will not go free as a result of this bill; this bill isn’t about creating loopholes,” he had added.
Lawmakers approved SB 128 along party-lines on the final day of the regularly scheduled session May 5 as part of a deal to also pass a bill related to religious expression in public K-12 schools (SB 436).
The religious liberties bill was also highly controversial due to provisions the Senate insisted on, which would require public schools to let students lead prayers during the school day and at school-sanctioned events, such as assemblies.
Ocala Republican Sen. Dennis Baxley, who sponsored the measure, said previously it was a way for lawmakers to “take a stand for liberty.”
Religious expression is already protected by the state and U.S. constitutions, and critics of the law worried it crosses a line that violates the separation of church and state.
Some opponents also said during legislative hearings that they worried it could lead to students and teachers being ostracized, intimidated or discriminated against if they’re of non-Christian faiths or non-religious.
Sen. Kevin Rader, D-Delray Beach, had called it “religiously coercive, divisive and unconstitutional.”
Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, on Friday heralded the signing of SB 128 and SB 436 as “protecting constitutional freedoms.”
The other bills Scott signed Friday were:
▪ HB 327, requiring movers to tell customers if they employ someone convicted of a sexual offense who will have access to their property.
▪ HB 329, prohibiting shared custody plans from requiring a child to visit a parent living in a substance abuse recovery residence overnight.
▪ HB 343, enhancing consumer protections against credit card theft and skimmers.
▪ HB 357, setting new requirements for self-service storage facility owners to follow when disposing of certain property, such as cars and watercraft.
▪ HB 435, updating the Office of Financial Regulation’s regulatory procedures and requirements for international financial institutions.
▪ HB 437, exempting from public records disclosure identifying information of international financial institutions’ customers, potential customers and shareholders held by the Office of Financial Regulation.
▪ HB 467, relating to the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services licensing and other agency functions.
▪ HB 589, enhancing the transparency of prescription drug prices.
▪ HB 859, directing the state to apply for participation in a multi-state agreement regarding online post-secondary education.
▪ SB 890, saving the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation direct-support organization, The Able Trust, from repeal.
▪ SB 896, saving the Florida Prepaid College Board direct-support organization from repeal, ensuring continued scholarship opportunities for students.
▪ SB 1052, clarifying “justifiable use of force laws” and expands the Castle Doctrine to include any residence a person has a right to be in.
▪ SB 1124, expanding the Florida Newborn Screening Program to include screening for additional conditions.