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House Backs ‘Stand Your Ground’ Shift

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

A bill that would shift a key burden of proof in "stand your ground" cases was approved Tuesday by a divided House, with Republicans saying it would restore the intent of the controversial self-defense law and Democrats arguing it would increase gun violence.
The House voted 74-39 for the measure (SB 128), which is supported by Second Amendment groups and now will go back to the Senate. The bill would shift a burden of proof from defendants to prosecutors in pre-trial hearings and would reverse a 2015 interpretation of the "stand your ground" law by the Florida Supreme Court.

Rep. Julio Gonzalez, R-Venice, said the proposal would restore the original intent of the 2005 law, as the court's interpretation "got it wrong."

"It is not the court's role to impose their wisdom on us," Gonzalez said. "It is our job, through this collective body of incredibly diverse individuals, it is our job to argue, to discuss, to bend a few arms, to come to a conclusion. … The court's job is to interpret what our wisdom gives to them as their directive."

In its 2015 ruling, the Supreme Court majority opinion — written by Justice Barbara Pariente —  said immunity in the "stand your ground" law "is not a blanket immunity, but rather, requires the establishment that the use of force was legally justified."

But a dissenting opinion, written by Justice Charles Canady and joined by Justice Ricky Polston, countered that the majority ruling "substantially curtails the benefit of the immunity from trial conferred by the Legislature under the Stand Your Ground law."

The Senate last month voted 23-15 to approve the bill, but the House made changes that will require the Senate to consider it again.

The House wants to require prosecutors in "stand your ground" cases to overcome the asserted immunity through "clear and convincing evidence." The Senate version set the standard as being "beyond a reasonable doubt."

Rep. James Grant, R-Tampa, said the House standard is easier for the state to prove.

"If the government cannot beat the lesser, easier burden in an immunity trial, then they darned sure can't meet beyond and to the exclusion of each and every reasonable doubt when they ask for a conviction," Grant said.

However, Democrats contended the House proposal would make it even harder for the state to prosecute people using the "stand your ground" defense, with Rep. Kamia Brown, D-Orlando, saying the bill would incentivize people to leave victims dead.

"This bill gives abusers the leeway to shoot first and ask questions later," Brown said. "What stops an abuser from claiming 'stand your ground' as an intimidation tactic?"

In "stand your ground" cases, pre-trial evidentiary hearings are held to determine whether defendants should be immune from prosecution. The bill would shift the burden from defendants to prosecutors in the pre-trial hearings.

The "stand your ground" law has long been controversial. It says people can use deadly force and do not have a duty to retreat if they think it is necessary to prevent death or great bodily harm.