Les Miller regrets SYG vote, says he would repeal it today
Hillsborough County Commissioner Les Miller was one of 14 Senate Democrats who unanimously approved the “stand your ground” law in 2005, but he says it’s the one vote he most regrets making in his 14-year career as a legislator.
“People are dying because of the ‘stand your ground’ law,” Miller said. “It was a bad bill. Out of all the votes I had, that’s the one I wish I could do over again.”
Miller said he and Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, were sending a letter to Gov. Rick Scott today asking him to call a special session to focus on the law.
Until Sunday’s Times/Herald story about the lawmakers who approved it eight years ago, Miller hadn’t had to publicly explain his vote. It passed the Senate 39-0 and the House 94-20. Miller wasn’t interviewed for the story, and he said he had constituents called him Sunday asking for explanations. He said he didn’t think it was fair he wasn’t interviewed for the story because he wanted an opportunity to explain his vote.
He told The Buzz that he voted to approve SB 436 after Senate Democrats discussed it during a regular caucus meeting, in which Democrats meet to discuss the pros and cons of upcoming bills. At the time, there were six lawyers in the Senate Democratic caucus -- Dave Aronberg, Skip Campbell, Steven Geller, Ron Klein, Gary Siplin, Rod Smith -- and that they had assessed the bill to be legitimate.
“I’m not at an attorney,” Miller said. “So we relied on the advice of our staff and the lawyers in the caucus.”
Miller, who was the Senate Democratic leader at the time, said the caucus concluded that the bill added a “stand your ground” defense for those in their homes or on their properties. At the time, Miller said, he had heard stories about people who defended themselves against people breaking into their homes, only to face prosecution later.
Miller said that now, eight years later, he couldn’t remember which examples he relied on to determine that this was a problem. It’s important to note that a prime example used by the sponsor of the bill, Sen. Durrell Peaden, R-Crestview, and others turned out to be a sham.
To illustrate the type of problem he thought the bill aimed to prevent, Miller spoke about a “what if?” situation in which a resident attacked an assailant climbing through a window with a baseball bat, knocking him unconscious or killing him. Because half of the assailant’s body was inside the house, draped across the windowsill, and half of his body was outside, Miller said the resident would face prosecution because Florida’s laws didn’t shield those attacking assailants from outside the home. Miller said he believed at the time that Peaden’s bill provided clarity on that scenario, but extended no further than the home.
“That was the interpretation,” Miller said. “We didn’t think it extended beyond the homestead.”
In the years since, Miller has grown unhappy with the law. He said it’s been misapplied and that it has led to unnecessary violence throughout Florida, including the Travyon Martin killing last year.
But why, then, didn’t Miller and other Senate Democrats echo the concerns raised by House Democrats like Joyner, Dan Gelber and Jack Seiler that the “stand your ground” law was dangerous and would lead to greater violence and more confusion with prosecutors? If some House Dems believed the law would be applied outside the home, why didn’t any Senate Democrats? Seiler, now mayor of Fort Lauderdale, told The Buzz that he shared his concerns, in the form of amendments, to Senate Democrats at the time. He said he was never sure why they weren’t picked up and proposed in the Senate. (They didn’t pass in the House, but they did lead to a more robust debate of the bill in which Seiler and Gelber accurately predicted the problems that the law has caused).
Miller said he doesn’t know why, and chalked it up to the confusion of the session, when it’s difficult for the leaders of the two chambers to meet. He said in his two years as Senate Minority leader, he probably organized dual caucus meetings about three times.
“Because of the session, because of the timing, we’re meeting at different times,” Miller said. “If we would have been able to sit down at the table and bring the House amendments over, it would have been a different vote. I wish we would have had different information. I wish I could do it again.”