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From the staff of the Tampa Bay Times

Florida Senate could consider stand-your-ground changes in January

3

December

Proposed changes that strengthen Florida's “stand your ground” law are headed to the full Florida Senate in January, after passing a third and final committee hearing Thursday.

But the new version of Senate Bill 344, which was endorsed unanimously by the Senate Rules Committee, is more tempered than previous drafts due to a sweeping amendment offered by chairman David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs.

The compromise is intended to make the proposal more palatable to critics. Gun-rights advocates -- such as the National Rifle Association and Florida Carry -- said they "can live with" the changes but preferred the original version, which offered defendants even greater protection from prosecution.

The bill filed by Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, shifted the burden of proof in a preliminary hearing to prosecutors, requiring them to show "beyond a reasonable doubt" why a defendant is not entitled to a stand-your-ground defense.

The revised bill keeps that shift but requires prosecutors to prove only "clear and convincing evidence" -- a lower threshold.

"There are reasons a prosecutor shouldn’t have to bear the burden beyond all reasonable doubt in a preliminary hearing because there are unforeseen and complicated circumstances of doing that," Simmons said, citing double-jeopardy implications as one example.

One of the biggest complaints from state attorneys was that Bradley's original plan would force them to conduct two trials: one before a judge at that pre-trial hearing and another before a jury during the trial itself. Buddy Jacobs, general counsel for the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association, was unavailable to comment immediately following the hearing.

Simmons' changes to the bill also removed controversial financial penalties and civil liability prosecutors could have faced if they lost in the pre-trial hearing. Bradley agreed such measures would be "unprecedented" to include in law; he supported Simmons' amendment as "reasonable."

Also gone: Wording describing the Legislature's desire to "correct misinterpretations" of legislative intent by the courts -- remarks that Simmons said would be more "appropriate" somewhere else, like "a press conference," but not in the bill itself.

The bill is contrary to what Florida courts -- culminating in a Supreme Court decision last summer -- have ruled. Justices stated that defendants who claim a stand-your-ground defense have to prove before trial why they're entitled to that immunity.

Bradley and other conservative lawmakers were infuriated by that ruling and want to change the legal standard through the 2016 legislation.

Undaunted by the stalling of a similar bill last month in a House committee, Bradley said he hopes the full Senate will approve his amended proposal during the first couple weeks of session in January.

If it does, the bill would then be sent over to the House, where Bradley said he hopes Speaker Steve Crisafulli will put it directly before the full House for a vote.

When asked whether Crisafulli would entertain that option for Bradley's bill, his spokesman Michael Williams told the Times/Herald: "The House Rules certainly allow us to take up the Senate bill."

Such a move would bypass last month's deadlocked vote in the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee, where Chairman Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, and Rep. Charles Van Zant, R-Keystone Heights, joined with the panel’s four Democrats to oppose Bradley's companion legislation, sponsored by Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala.

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.

After lengthy discussion and debate Thursday, Simmons also successfully added an amendment to "clean up" the stand-your-ground law, related to other changes lawmakers made in 2013. It clarifies that individuals don't have to first be "attacked" in their homes in order to stand their ground.

"We knew this needed to be corrected, and this is the perfect opportunity to correct it," Simmons said.

A previous version of this article inaccurately defined “clear and convincing evidence.” 

[Last modified: Friday, December 4, 2015 12:22pm]

    

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