Florida Politics

Changes to ‘Stand Your Ground’ halted in Florida House

Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, addresses the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee on Tuesday about his bill proposing changes to Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law.
Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, addresses the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee on Tuesday about his bill proposing changes to Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law. The Florida Channel

A plan to strengthen Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law during the 2016 legislative session died in the state House on Tuesday, after a subcommittee rejected the legislation on a deadlocked vote.

House Criminal Justice Subcommittee Chairman Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, and Rep. Charles Van Zant, R-Keystone Heights, joined with the panel’s four Democrats to oppose a bill by Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, that would have given defendants who claim self-defense more protection from prosecution.

The abrupt end to Baxley’s bill comes as other legislation backed by the National Rifle Association — allowing guns on college campuses and to be openly carried in public — continue to move swiftly through Republican-led House and Senate committees this fall.

House Bill 169 would have required prosecutors to prove “beyond a reasonable doubt” — during a procedural hearing before trial — why a defendant’s self-defense claim isn’t valid.

In contrast, Florida courts, culminating in a Florida Supreme Court ruling in July, had previously ruled that the defendant had the burden of proving why they shouldn’t be prosecuted because they acted in self-defense.

Trujillo, a former assistant state attorney in Miami-Dade County, said he supports the way “Stand Your Ground” operates now, and the burden should remain on the defendant who claims self-defense.

“If you’re alleging something, you have to prove it,” Trujillo said.

Rep. Chris Latvala, R-Clearwater, was absent for the vote, resulting in the 6-6 tie.

The surprise result was preceded by two late-filed amendments from Rep. Dave Kerner, D-Lake Worth, which he said he proposed as “an insurance policy” with the ultimate intent to kill the bill in committee. Both amendments passed by a 6-5 vote; Rep. Ray Pilon, R-Sarasota, was absent for those, along with Latvala.

Should the bill have advanced, Kerner’s amendments would have drastically changed the proposal’s intent by requiring defendants to do more than just allege self-defense — they’d have to show a “preponderance of evidence” to back it up — and by eliminating proposed financial penalties for prosecutors, should a defendant successfully get their case dismissed after they argued self-defense during the preliminary hearing.

“If we didn’t have the votes to kill it, at least it really would have gutted the bill,” Kerner told reporters after the hearing.

Baxley was furious about Kerner’s tactics, and he criticized Kerner for not broaching the amendments with him before the hearing — an expected act of courtesy among lawmakers.

The Senate companion to Baxley’s bill, introduced by Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, is scheduled to get its second vetting on Wednesday before the Senate Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Subcommittee. The Senate Criminal Justice Committee previously advanced the bill by a 4-1 vote.

Bradley told the Herald/Times after the House hearing that he planned to review what options he had to keep moving forward in the Senate.

But without a mechanism to pass the proposal in the House, the issue is likely dead for the 2016 session.

Supported by public defenders and the National Rifle Association, Baxley said his legislation would have fortified fundamental rights of self-defense and of being innocent until proven guilty.

“We would rather a guilty person go free than convict an innocent, particularly someone who was defending themselves and others from harm,” Baxley said. “We need this legislation.”

But state prosecutors and victims advocates said Baxley’s plan would have bucked standard judicial procedures. They feared it would force prosecutors to essentially try a case twice: once before a judge in the preliminary hearing and again before a jury, if the case advanced to trial.

The legislation was filed in direct response to the Florida Supreme Court’s 5-2 decision last summer, which affirmed the burden of proof for showing immunity under “Stand Your Ground” was on the defendant.

Justices said that process is consistent with how other motions to dismiss are handled in court. Several states with “Stand Your Ground” laws also use that procedure, including Georgia, Colorado and South Carolina.

Other states vary in their requirements; Kentucky, for instance, requires prosecutors to show at the pre-trial hearing only “probable cause” that a defendant’s self-defense immunity claim is invalid — a lesser burden of proof.

Conservative lawmakers on the House criminal justice panel, as well as the NRA, blasted Florida’s judiciary for “usurping” legislative intent and “overstepping their bounds.”

“This bill is about protecting the rights of the people; it is not about the convenience of prosecutors or the courts,” said Marion Hammer, the NRA’s longtime lobbyist in Tallahassee.

Florida’s 10-year-old “Stand Your Ground” law allows residents to use deadly force in defense of their lives or property in certain circumstances, with no requirement to retreat. Baxley sponsored the 2005 bill that created the law.

Baxley’s bill for the 2016 session — which would have applied retroactively to pending cases — also would have allowed the defendant to recoup from the prosecutor’s office the cost of their attorneys fees and other expenses up to $200,000, if the court granted a motion to dismiss the case before trial. Kerner’s amendment struck that from the bill.

State prosecutors had warned the provision could have a chilling effect on state attorneys trying to seek justice, and House legislative analysts also advised such a civil penalty could be deemed as a violation of prosecutorial immunity, a protection afforded prosecutors so they can't be sued when acting in the course of their official duties.