Gun-toting criminals and their defense lawyers will soon have much to celebrate, thanks to the Florida Legislature and the National Rifle Association.
The state’s “Stand Your Ground” law is being rewritten in a way that will make it easier to shoot somebody and beat the rap. Gang members might as well pop the champagne cork now, because it’s practically a done deal in Tallahassee.
At the direction of the NRA, Republican lawmakers are changing the procedure in Stand Your Ground hearings so that defendants no longer will have to show a judge they acted in self-defense.
The burden will shifted to prosecutors, who’ll be forced to show the shooter did not feel his life was in danger when he pulled the trigger.
Conservative lawmakers say this change will save honest armed citizens from being put on trial for protecting themselves – as if there’s an epidemic of such unjust prosecutions. In fact, charges are rarely filed in legitimate instances of self-defense.
The new Stand Your Ground rules will offer fabulous creative opportunities for defendants in a myriad of scenarios. The law applies not just to firearms cases but to all sorts of assaults.
Make up any story that fits your crime, and then sit back while prosecutors try to prove you weren’t really afraid for your life.
Am angry husband who stabs his wife to death can say he thought she was reaching for the knife first. Why not?
A bad-ass busted in a bloody street shootout can say he fired his AK because he feared the other guy would shoot him. Split-second survival decision, right?
The problem isn’t that prosecutors can’t win those kinds of B.S. cases, because they can. But the Stand Your Grand rewrite will make it much harder and costlier.
Prosecutors would basically have to present their cases twice – first, at the Stand Your Ground hearing in front of the judge, and then at the jury trial.
Under the Legislature’s proposed changes, defendants would no longer have to testify or give evidence at the initial hearing. That means anybody arrested for a shooting -- or even a misdemeanor battery -- can claim a Stand Your Ground defense with no fear of cross-examination, and no legal risk.
The Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association predicts a nightmare logjam of frivolous cases that will cost taxpayers millions of dollars, dilute already-stressed resources and jeopardize the outcomes of important felony cases.
Phil Archer, state attorney for Brevard and Seminole counties, told the New York Times that only four Stand Your Ground hearings were held in his circuit last year. He predicted 4,000 hearings next year, if the rewrite gets passed.
The ensuing trial delays would be a gift for defense attorneys, because witnesses often get cold feet or shaky memories.
It’s ironic that the NRA, which promotes itself as a law-and-order lobby, would initiate legislation so outrageously beneficial to criminals, and so damaging to law enforcement.
For example, the Senate version of the Stand Your Ground rewrite requires a prosecutor at the pre-trial hearing to show “beyond a reasonable doubt” that a defendant wasn’t really acting in self-defense and doesn’t deserve immunity.
No other state with a Stand Your Ground law holds prosecutors to such severe standards even before a trial date is set. The NRA stooge pushing this idea is Sen. Rob Bradley, a Republican from the mean streets of Fleming Island, one of the wealthiest zip codes in the greater Jacksonville area.
Gang violence isn’t a huge problem in Fleming Island, so perhaps Bradley fails to grasp the difficulties facing police and prosecutors in less tranquil parts of Florida. The House version of the Stand Your Ground rewrite is slightly less rigid, calling for the state to present “clear and convincing evidence” of a crime at the pre-trial hearing. Defendants would make a “prima facie claim” they were standing their ground, but still wouldn’t be required to testify or provide evidence.
In a sane and sensible place, politicians listen to prosecutors because the job of prosecutors is putting bad guys in prison. In a sane and sensible place, lawmakers wouldn’t dream of passing a law that would stall felony trials, clog up the courts, reduce the number of successful prosecutions and hand bad guys a new courtroom ploy.
But, of course, this isn’t a same and sensible place.
Once lawmakers approve the final draft of the new Stand Your Grand law, Gov. Rick Scott is likely to sign it, giving comedians yet another free punch line about gun-crazy Florida.
It’s only funny if you don’t live here.