In a case stemming from a fatal shooting in Broward County, the Florida Supreme Court on Tuesday waded into a debate about whether police officers should be able to use the state’s “stand your ground” self-defense law.
Attorney General Pam Bondi’s office asked justices to overturn an appeals-court ruling that said Broward County sheriff’s deputy Peter Peraza was entitled to claim immunity under the “stand your ground” law in the 2013 shooting death of Jermaine McBean.
The shooting occurred after Peraza received a report of a man walking down a street carrying a gun. The weapon turned out to be an air rifle. Peraza was indicted on a charge of manslaughter but successfully raised a “stand your ground” defense in a pre-trial evidentiary hearing to avoid going to trial on the charge.
Melanie Dale Surber, a senior assistant attorney general, told justices that police officers are subject to a different law that can provide what is known as “qualified” immunity. The attorney general’s office argued in court documents that the case should be sent back for a trial in which Peraza could use the qualified-immunity law.
“It’s two different laws that have two different procedures, and that’s what this fight comes down to --- which procedure applies,” Surber told the Supreme Court.
But Peraza attorney Eric Schwartzreich said the “stand your ground” law applies to “any person.”
“Under any reasonable definition of the English language, a law-enforcement officer is a person,” Schwartzreich said. “Law-enforcement officers are people too.”
The Supreme Court typically takes months to issue rulings after hearing arguments in cases. They asked repeated questions of both attorneys during Tuesday’s hearing, appearing skeptical at times of the arguments by the attorney general’s office.
“How do you get around that a law-enforcement officer obviously is a person?” Justice Barbara Pariente asked Surber at one point. “It (the “stand your ground” law) didn’t say a citizen. It said a person. If it’s plain, then what else do you go to?”
Surber, however, said the qualified-immunity law passed in the 1970s, long before the controversial “stand your ground” law in 2005. She argued that a 2005 legislative staff analysis recognized that use-of-force incidents involving police officers were addressed by the earlier law.
A brief filed by the attorney general’s office said “it is clear that the Legislature did not intend for officers, such as the respondent (Peraza), to be permitted to pick and choose under which statute he would prefer to proceed.”
Peraza was in the Supreme Court for Tuesday’s arguments, with Schwartzreich noting his presence.
The arguments went into little detail about the 2013 incident that started the case. But an August 2017 ruling by the 4th District Court of Appeal said Peraza and another officer pursued the man who had been reported to be carrying a gun. The man was ordered to drop the weapon but did not, resulting in Peraza shooting him.
A circuit judge held an evidentiary hearing and ruled that Peraza should be immune from prosecution under “stand your ground.” The appeals court upheld that ruling.
“The circuit court found that the officer's account of the incident was consistent with the other credible witnesses' testimony and the physical evidence,” the appeals court ruling said. “The (circuit) court then found, by the greater weight of the evidence, that the man (McBean) ignored repeated warnings to stop and drop the weapon, turned towards the officers, and pointed his weapon at the officers, causing the officer (Peraza) to be in fear for his life and the lives of others, prompting the officer to shoot at the man, resulting in the man's death.”