Crime

‘Stand Your Ground’ change passes in late session compromise

Lawmakers signed off on changes to Florida’s ‘Stand Your Ground’ law that proponents say better protects defendants’ right to immunity from prosecution in such cases — but gun-safety advocates argue it will “further create a ‘shoot first, ask questions later’ culture.”
Lawmakers signed off on changes to Florida’s ‘Stand Your Ground’ law that proponents say better protects defendants’ right to immunity from prosecution in such cases — but gun-safety advocates argue it will “further create a ‘shoot first, ask questions later’ culture.” AP

A change to the state’s “Stand Your Ground” self-defense law is heading to Gov. Rick Scott after the Senate agreed late Friday to go along with a House proposal.

The House and Senate both wanted to change the law but had clashed on a legal issue in the bill (SB 128).

But with time running out in the legislative session Friday, the Senate voted 22-14 — with Tallahassee Democrat Bill Montford joining Republicans in support — to accept the House proposal.

The move came in exchange for getting the House to accept the Senate’s more far-reaching language on a separate measure (SB 436) dealing with religious expression in public schools.

“I thought that it was a reasonable resolution to both matters, and they’re both constitutional issues,” said Sen. Rob Bradley, a Fleming Island Republican who sponsored the “stand your ground” bill. “And we wrapped it all up in a bow, and we resolved them both in a satisfactory manner.”

The overall issue stems from a Florida Supreme Court ruling in 2015 that said defendants have the burden of proof to show they should be shielded from prosecution under the “Stand Your Ground” law.

bradley_Stand Your Ground
Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island Steve Cannon AP

In “Stand Your Ground” cases, pre-trial evidentiary hearings are held to determine whether defendants should be immune from prosecution.

While the House and Senate broadly supported the idea of shifting the burden of proof from defendants to prosecutors in the pre-trial hearings, they differed on a legal standard.

The House proposal said prosecutors in pre-trial “Stand Your Ground” hearings would have to overcome the asserted immunity sought by defendants through “clear and convincing evidence.” The Senate fought for a higher standard of proof, known as “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

The two chambers needed to reach agreement by Friday, the final scheduled day of the annual legislative session. Lawmakers will meet again Monday to vote on budget-related issues but will not take up other matters.

In the end, the Senate agreed to go along with the “clear and convincing evidence” standard.

Proponents of the bill, which had support from groups such as the National Rifle Association, said shifting the burden of proof would better protect the rights of defendants. But critics argued, in part, that the change would lead to cases ending before all the facts are revealed.

Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez, D-Miami, said Friday the House version didn’t alleviate his concerns about the bill.

“If you talk to prosecutors, they’re already gearing up just in case we pass this bill to expend significant amount of resources, in literally every single case where there is violent activity, where they [defendants] can raise this at the pre-trial stage and force the prosecutors to basically put on a trial at the pre-trial stage,” Rodriguez said.

The bill would take effect immediately, if Scott signs it into law.

It was the only major piece of gun-related legislation to pass this year, among about two dozen lawmakers had proposed. Another bill related to “Stand Your Ground” also passed (SB 1052) this session; it made essentially only technical changes to the law that were relatively non-controversial.

Florida volunteers with Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, who lobbied aggressively against SB 128, said they were “deeply concerned” by the bill’s passage and are urging Scott to veto.

“This expansion would place an enormous burden on our state’s hardworking prosecutors, and further create a ‘shoot first, ask questions later’ culture that would threaten the lives of people in our state, especially those in marginalized communities,” said Michelle Gajda, a volunteer state chapter leader for Moms Demand Action. “I am incredibly disappointed that Governor Scott is expected to sign this dangerous measure instead of listening to the legitimate concerns raised by gun violence survivors and state prosecutors.”

Herald/Times staff writer Kristen M. Clark contributed.

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