How far can you go to protect yourself?
The debate over Florida’s controversial Stand Your Ground law was reignited last month after a heated argument outside a Clearwater convenience store left a black man mortally wounded, his white killer free to go home and civil-rights activists up in arms.
The law, which permits the use of deadly force under life-threatening circumstances, states that individuals are not required to retreat and can stand their ground by using non-lethal or lethal force.
And although the shooter in the July 19 case, Michael Drejka, was charged by the local state attorney with manslaughter last week, critics of the law — and of the delay in charging the gunman — have called for the Florida Legislature to review the measure and potentially change it. Many argue that black victims are disproportionately affected by the law.
Last year, legislators changed the law to place the burden on prosecutors to disprove defendants’ Stand Your Ground claims instead of on defense lawyers to prove it.
As part of the Miami Herald’s and Bradenton Herald’s Influencers series, we asked 50 of the state’s leaders whether Florida lawmakers should hold a special session to address critics’ concerns.
A majority of the group — who hail from political, education and legal fields, among others — said the Legislature should hold such a session. Thirty-six percent said no, and 11 percent were “not sure.”
There was a clear split along racial and ethnic lines. Black influencers, who make up a quarter of the group, unanimously agreed that the law should be revisited. And some influencers who voted no said they thought the law needed to be scrutinized but not necessarily during a special session.
“The law is too vague and give[s] too much latitude to kill at will even in situation[s] where a safe retreat is possible and it is the right thing to do,” said Marleine Bastien, executive director of the Family Action Network Movement. “It should be strengthened to include clear guidelines when Stand Your Ground can apply. The law is so vague now that anyone with a bad temper, bullying and racist tendencies, and even a killer can use it to take life.”
On July 19, Michael Drejka, 48, claimed the protection of Stand Your Ground after fatally shooting Markeis McGlockton, 28. Drejka had been arguing with McGlockton’s girlfriend, Brittany Jacobs, over her use of a handicap parking spot. Surveillance footage shows McGlockton approach Drejka and push him to the ground, at which point Drejka — who has a concealed carry permit — pulled out his handgun and fired.
The Tampa Bay Times reported last week that Drejka’s arrest warrant notes that Drejka’s fear was not reasonable. After McGlockton pushed him down, McGlockton stepped away.
“Drejka steadies the firearm with both hands,” the warrant says, according to the Times. “McGlockton immediately backs up when confronted with the firearm. As he backs up to his vehicle he begins to turn towards the front of the store away from the shooter.”
In the aftermath of the shooting, at least one state lawmaker has called for a repeal of Stand Your Ground. State Sen. Darryl Rouson, a Democrat, is in favor of rolling back the law to apply only to an individual’s right to defend themselves at their home, according to WFLA-TV in the Tampa Bay area. His call for a special session to address the law failed earlier this month, the Times reported.
Mary Anne Franks, a professor of law at the University of Miami, wants to take it a step further.
“Stand Your Ground should be repealed in its entirety,” she told the Miami Herald. “[It] not only encourages people to use deadly force in situations that do not call for it, but promises these people immunity from prosecution and the expungement of their records. ... The Stand Your Ground movement was a fraud from the beginning, based on the false claim that law-abiding citizens were not permitted to defend themselves under existing law.”
All Democratic candidates running for governor in Florida have called for the repeal of the law, drafted in 2005 by the National Rifle Association, POLITICO Florida reports. U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis, a Republican candidate for governor, said he believes the Stand Your Ground defense should not have applied to the Clearwater case and that Pinellas County’s Republican Sheriff Bob Gualtieri did not analyze the law correctly when he decided not to arrest Drejka.
Ken Lawson, the president and CEO of Visit Florida, cited the 2013 killing of unarmed Miami Gardens teenager Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida. In that case, neighborhood watch member George Zimmerman, who was not immediately arrested and was later found not guilty of second-degree murder, claimed self-defense after suffering injuries to his face and head during a scuffle with Martin.
The Martin case sparked outrage in the black community and galvanized a new crop of civil-rights activists under the banner of Black Lives Matter.
“The situation in Tampa was awful. Although the murder was charged, [Stand Your Ground] was misused as a defense in the press and in initial legal discussions,” said Lawson, who is black. “SYG has a worthy intent, but it cannot be used as a shield for outright murder such as the [Trayvon] Martin case and the Tampa situation. A review of the law’s practical application should be conducted.”
Defenders of the law, such as David Mica, the executive director of the Florida Petroleum Council, said that some “seem to be confused by the true extent of the actual law” and that “the existing law can work.”
Rhea Law, an attorney and Republican fundraiser, said any changes should be made with a clear mind, and not in haste.
“I do not believe that we should try to tweak the law until we know exactly how to apply it,” Law said. “These quick fixes only lead to more confusion and misinterpretation.”
Last month, Sen. Bill Nelson asked the U.S. Justice Department to investigate the Clearwater shooting. Sens. Kamala Harris of California and Corey Booker of New Jersey signed on to Nelson’s letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, as did Florida U.S. Reps. Charlie Crist and Alcee Hastings.