For those already not enamored with a "stand your ground" law that makes it easier for people in Florida to shoot and kill with impunity, get ready:
Lawmakers might be about to make it worse.
Anyone familiar with the name George Zimmerman knows our controversial law says you can use deadly force with no obligation to back down or flee if you feel threatened. Critics say stand your ground has the potential to cheapen human life, and a Tampa Bay Times investigation found the law has been applied unevenly across the state.
The way it works now — "works" being the operative word — a person who has been charged but claims immunity from prosecution because he says he legally stood his ground can get a hearing before his trial to make his case. If the judge agrees the defendant is covered by the law, the charge is dropped. If not, the defendant still faces trial.
And, flaws in the law notwithstanding, this seems pretty reasonable.
An elected state attorney has considered the facts of the case and the law and has decided there is probable cause to charge and try someone. That defendant believes what he did was justified under the law. So explaining why before a judge before his trial does not seem like too much to ask in order to get those charges dismissed.
Now, and for the second year in a row, Republican state Sen. Rob Bradley from Fleming Island wants to shift the burden of proof to prosecutors. To his mind, the state should have to prove "beyond a reasonable doubt" before any actual trial why stand your ground does not apply.
For the record, there has been no great public outcry for this. The senator says it's the principle of the thing.
So if that whole cheapening-of-human-life argument wasn't already working for you, consider the possible practical effects.
People in the court system predict that with this change, a lot more defendants will take a crack at stand your ground. It's a defense attorney's obligation to use all the tools in the toolbox and this would be a mighty powerful one. Any lawyer worth his salt will consider it if there is even a hint that a case might look like self-defense.
Hillsborough's new state attorney Andrew Warren says this would significantly disrupt the operation of the justice system, potentially requiring two trials in any case involving violence. "We should be finding ways to make our system more efficient while making our neighborhoods safer," says Warren. "This bill does neither."
And advantage the defendant over victims' families and witnesses worn down at the idea of not one but two court proceedings.
It should not surprise you that Senate Bill 128 has the support of the National Rifle Association. (By the way, did you see the NRA's Marion Hammer complaining recently that sheriffs ought not be allowed to appear before lawmakers in Tallahassee armed and in uniform to talk about, you know, laws that will affect public safety? Unless, as one sheriff pointed out, they happen to be advocating for an NRA-backed cause. But I digress.)
Under the current law, a defendant who says he was legally standing his ground has the right to show why before his trial. Fair enough. Changing this would be both burdensome and unnecessary. Potentially empowering, too — and not in a good way.
Sue Carlton can be reached at [email protected]