Romano: 'Stand your ground' is the law you can never predict

Published December 3 2014
Updated December 4 2014

We Floridians love our "stand your ground" law.

That's what the polls indicate, and it's what our lawmakers often tell us.

And, yet, we're still not sure what it is.

The law was written so broadly, so loosely, that it has wildly different interpretations from case to case and county to county. In some ways, "stand your ground" is less clear today than when it was passed nine years ago.

"The law is so poorly written that it's almost impossible to effectively apply it," said Stetson Law professor Charles Rose. "You can never predict the results you will get because it's written so loosely."

Consider the following cases:

No. 1: Witnesses say a man driving recklessly near Orlando stopped his car in the middle of a highway and got out to confront Ronald Bretherick, a disabled Vietnam vet who had blown his car horn. When Bretherick took his gun out of the glove box, the other driver, who had a previous road rage conviction, returned to his vehicle but began backing up.

As Bretherick called 911, his adult son Jared exited the car with the gun pointed at the first driver's vehicle. When police arrived, Jared was charged with aggravated assault.

No. 2: A woman in Lake City permitted her ex-boyfriend to enter her home, even though he was a fugitive on drug and weapons charges and had previously beaten her.

When he raised his fist to hit her, the woman shot him in the neck. She put his body in a Christmas tree bag and mopped his blood from the floor. An estimated eight hours passed before she called police. She was later charged with second-degree murder.

Guess which defendant was granted immunity under "stand your ground"?

Hint:

It's not the one who called police promptly and never fired a shot.

I'm not trying to disparage or defend the judges in either of these cases, and I'm not presuming guilt or innocence, either. The point is the law is such a wild card that you can find yourself arguing it was defined too narrowly one day and too broadly the next.

"The problem is it was written for political reasons," Rose said. "It was meant to affirm a right to bear arms, as opposed to substantive legal arguments or reasons."

The road rage case near Orlando was heard by the state Supreme Court on Tuesday, and legal experts say it has the potential to significantly change the law.

Bretherick's attorney argued that "stand your ground'' was meant to protect citizens in fear of their lives, and they should not have to prove self-defense was necessary. Instead, he argued, it's up to prosecutors to prove otherwise.

The justices seemed skeptical of that argument, saying it would require the prosecution to present its entire case in a pretrial hearing.

"I see nothing in the legislation that indicates that is the standard," Justice Barbara Pariente said. "I'm trying to see where, other than pulling it out of the stratosphere, we would come up with that additional burden."

For more than 30 minutes, the justices and lawyers debated the intent and language of "stand your ground."

Which, of course, is part of the problem.

Nine years later, our lawmakers still haven't given us a clear picture of how this law is meant to work.

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