A judge was correct to dismiss a manslaughter charge against a deputy based on Florida's "Stand Your Ground" self-defense law after he fatally shot a black man carrying a realistic-looking air rifle, an appeals court ruled Wednesday in a case headed for state Supreme Court review.
The 4th District Court of Appeal agreed that the self-defense law granting immunity from prosecution can apply not only to private citizens, but also to law enforcement officers.
Broward Sheriff's Deputy Peter Peraza, 39, was the first Florida law enforcement officer charged for an on-duty shooting in 30 years. He had faced 30 years in prison if convicted.
State prosecutors sought to put Peraza on trial before a jury, contending that "Stand Your Ground" should not apply to police. They argued that officers are covered by other forms of immunity regarding use of force. The "Stand Your Ground" law permits a person to respond with deadly force to threats of bodily harm or imminent death and removes a duty to retreat in the face of danger.
"There is nothing in the term 'a person' that is unclear or ambiguous. A law enforcement officer under any reasonable understanding of our language qualifies as 'a person,'" the appeals judges wrote in a 15-page decision that also asked the state Supreme Court to issue a final ruling on the matter.
Peraza has been on paid leave since he was charged in December 2015. He fatally shot 33-year-old Jermaine McBean in 2013 after 911 callers reported a man carrying a rifle down a busy street. Peraza is a white Hispanic.
The rifle turned out to be an air gun and family members said McBean, who suffered from mental illness, probably did not hear commands from deputies to drop the gun because he was listening to music through earbuds. Peraza testified that he fired after McBean turned with the weapon toward deputies outside his apartment complex pool, which was crowded with children.
"We agree with the circuit court that the officer reasonably believed using deadly force was necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself, his sergeant, and the nearby citizens," the appeals judges wrote.
Peraza attorney Eric Schwartzreich praised the ruling, and said its conclusions about "Stand Your Ground" could have broad impact for law enforcement across the U.S.
"This is an important case for all communities throughout this country and the men and women that choose to put on their uniforms and keep us safe," he says.
McBean family attorney David Schoen, however, said the decision is "a travesty, a complete injustice, and puts the public at great risk."
"All the victim's family and the public wanted was for Peraza to stand before a jury and have a fair trial based on the evidence," Schoen says. "That justice has been stolen from them and we all lose from this kind of injustice."
The court noted that its decision conflicts with another Florida appellate decision about what kind of justifiable force immunity laws should apply to law enforcement officers who injure or kill suspects while on duty.
The 4th District judges asked the Florida Supreme Court to make clear whether law enforcement officers are covered by "Stand Your Ground" or another form of immunity involving use of force when making an arrest. That means the high court will likely be the final word.
"The district court has made its ruling. This is now in the hands of the Florida Supreme Court," says Ron Ishoy, spokesman for Broward State Attorney Mike Satz.