LONGWOOD — The state's public safety task force charged with tackling Florida's controversial "stand your ground" self defense law began its first public hearing Tuesday before a tiny Central Florida audience made up largely of news reporters.
The task force, led by Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll, will review the law to determine whether the Legislature should revise it. Carroll kicked off the session with a brief session with reporters, though her explanation of the law conflicted with its actual provisions. She was a legislator when the law was passed in 2005.
"We were going through a period of carjackings and home invasions. People didn't feel they had the right to protect themselves," Carroll said, explaining the Legislature's rationale. "We wanted to give citizens the right to protect themselves."
She said the law has wrongly been dubbed the "shoot first" law, when "clearly the law says if you have the opportunity to retreat, you should do so."
However, even before stand your ground, Florida citizens had the right to protect themselves during home invasions. The law extended that right outside the home by eliminating a person's duty to retreat when faced with imminent threat. The law specifically removes the obligation to retreat, even if an altercation takes place in public.
"The task force is about laws," Carroll said. "What are the laws, and are they fairly applied? Do they have uniformity? Do they have clarity? Is it understood?"
The 19-member task force was formed in the wake of the Feb. 26 shooting of Miami Gardens teenager Trayvon Martin.
Trayvon was shot Feb. 26 by a Sanford man who accused the unarmed teen of attacking him. Citing the stand your ground law, the Sanford Police did not arrest the shooter. The case triggered a nationwide movement against Florida's Stand Your Ground law, which enjoys the support of a majority of voters and gun advocates.
Shooter George Zimmerman was later charged with second degree murder and is being held at a local jail.
The hearing's first presentation was given by Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Krista Marx, who laid out several case studies where Stand Your Ground was applied or rejected.
"I suggest self defense has been around since, 'stay out of my cave,' " Marx said. "Not many people argue that it's not a good idea to have self defense laws. As long as people have been killing each other, that notion has been there."
She noted that the 2005 law changed by spelling out that an intruder to someone's home is presumed to have malicious intent.
The law applies only to a person who is in a place where he or she has a right to be and is not committing a crime, but the law is unclear on spelling out criminal activity and probably needs to be clarified, the judge said. A provoker should not be able to avail themselves of stand your ground unless the person had no way to escape or had tried to retreat and the attack continued, she added.
Police and prosecutors cannot grant immunity under stand your ground, even though the statute says otherwise, Marx said. Immunity is only granted by a judge at a pretrial hearing.
Miami-Dade Police Homicide Sgt. Thomas Hixon also spoke to the panel and explained how the law has affected investigations.
Trayvon's parents were expected during the public hearing of the meeting Tuesday afternoon.
Carroll said the task force will wrap up its work by March, in time for the next legislative session.