Stand Your Ground may protect you from criminal charges – but not lawsuits

The Florida Supreme Court on Thursday said that rulings of “immunity” under the state’s self-defense law in criminal court don’t necessarily carry over to civil court.
The Florida Supreme Court on Thursday said that rulings of “immunity” under the state’s self-defense law in criminal court don’t necessarily carry over to civil court. Miami Herald archive

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.

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.

Crowds gathered at the Friendship Torch in front of Bayfront Park for a Trayvon Martin vigil on July 14, 2013. Crowds demanded changes to laws and made a social call to arms after George Zimmerman was acquitted from the murder of Martin.

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.