Friday, February 23, 2018
Politics

Florida panel's 'stand your ground' report is no surprise

Experts! Correspondence! Public meetings and phone calls!

From the opening pages of a recently released report, the governor's task force on Florida's "stand your ground'' law wants you to know its members were exhaustive in their quest for truth and justice.

And why does this need pointing out?

Because otherwise you might never know they existed.

After months of studying a statute that has been criticized, dissected, challenged and ridiculed, the task force came to this conclusion:

Um, yeah, cool law.

There might have been a few other details in the report, but that's the gist of it.

No major reforms. No substantial recommendations. No indication they saw anything wrong with the obvious ambiguities and misapplications of "stand your ground.''

"The problem with this law is it creates opportunities for abuse,'' said Stetson University law professor Charlie Rose. "And if they have not made any affirmative suggestions to tighten it up, you will be seeing more and more cases of abuse.

"The Legislature has a responsibility to get this right, and they're choosing not to do that.''

This wasn't unexpected. The task force was stacked with people who either helped draft the law or were clearly inclined to support it.

And, to be fair, hardly anyone was clamoring for the entire law to be struck down. An unofficial, liberal-leaning task force convened earlier hadn't even gone that far.

But for anyone who followed the Tampa Bay Times' analysis of "stand your ground'' cases this summer, it's hard to argue some type of reform isn't necessary for a law that has excused gang shootouts, domestic violence and drug deals gone bad.

The problem is not that "stand your ground'' has turned Florida streets into the Wild West, as some early critics had predicted. The problem is the language is so broad that "stand your ground'' is being invoked in cases that lawmakers never envisioned.

Back in 2005 when he introduced the legislation, former state Rep. Dennis Baxley insisted it was merely a way to protect law-abiding citizens.

"You can only do what somebody does to you,'' Baxley said at the time.

Except that's not how the law is being interpreted. There are cases of unarmed people being shot. Cases of people shot in the back while trying to flee. Cases interpreted one way over here and another way over there.

The task force made some token recommendations, but it's still not too late for the Legislature to take a hard look at the law's unintended consequences.

Lawmakers need to look at changing the language to ensure there is real evidence of imminent danger, and not just a presumption of fear before someone kills in self-defense.

There also needs to be a way to prevent someone from initiating a confrontation and then killing in the name of self-defense.

As it stands now, the law asks only three questions: Did a defendant have a right to be there? Was he breaking any law? Was there a reasonable fear he was in grave danger?

If you consider the neighborhood watch case in Sanford, it's easy to see how you can make a case for "stand your ground'' under those absurdly vague guidelines.

Not just for George Zimmerman, but for Trayvon Martin, too.

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