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The 'stand your ground' law's sad Florida legacy

For the families of two men whose paths crossed this week, Thanksgiving 2011 will probably forever mark a time when everything changed, and for no better reason than somebody cut somebody else off in traffic.

And because of Florida's "stand your ground" law — the one police and prosecutors warned us about because it doesn't require common sense — it may turn out to be perfectly legal for one man to have stabbed the other with an ice pick over this.

It sounds like classic road rage. On what should have been a routine Monday, according to Hillsborough County sheriff's officials, 62-year-old Alcisviades Polanco was driving down Manhattan Avenue when he cut off Wathson Adelson, 20. The younger man then sped around him, stopped and got out. They argued. At some point, the older man grabbed an ice pick from his car. Deputies say he stabbed the younger, larger man in the head and arm. Adelson was in critical condition this week.

And, really, an ice pick? These days, I guess we carry around all kinds of things to protect us from the world.

It's early in the investigation, and details haven't been released, but this will soon land in the lap of the Hillsborough State Attorney's Office. Prosecutors will probably consider whether what Polanco did falls under the "stand your ground" law.

Though Florida already had a perfectly good law on when people could use deadly force to protect themselves, the 2005 law said you can stand your ground and meet force with force just about anywhere, taking away the sensible part about retreating if you can reasonably and safely do so.

Sheriff's spokesman Larry McKinnon, a police officer for 30 years, put it this way: "It used to be there was at least some mental safety mechanism, some pause for people before they would resort to the ultimate use of force. That one barrier seems to have disappeared."

By the way, there was no evidence before this of a trend of prosecuting people for defending themselves. But this is Florida, where there is almost no right we won't try to bestow upon gun owners — like that recent attempt at open-carry legislation that would have had people packing in plain sight in public.

"Stand your ground" says you need only to "reasonably believe" shooting, stabbing or otherwise using force is necessary to protect yourself from great harm or death. Last year, a Times review of major Florida newspapers showed the law has been a factor in at least 93 cases since it went into effect. People weren't charged or had charges dropped or dismissed in 57 of them. Seven were acquitted.

Not that the defense always works. Last year a guy in Land O'Lakes on his way to jail after shooting and killing a friend told a detective, "I'm going to stand my ground, dude. Jeb Bush said I could." He got 30 years.

But it's hard to argue with critics who say a law like this has the potential to cheapen human life.

Road rage makes no sense. You know nothing about what's in the other guy's head or how stable he might be. Seems crazy not to back off, drive away, get a cop and keep it from blowing up into something that can never be taken back.

And it seems a sad thing to have a law that says you don't really even have to think about backing away.

The 'stand your ground' law's sad Florida legacy 11/25/11 [Last modified: Friday, November 25, 2011 11:03pm]
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