A Miami judge's ruling this month that the Florida Legislature's recent changes to the "stand your ground" law are unconstitutional was predictable and reflects both legal precedent and common sense. Lawmakers essentially forced prosecutors to prove their cases twice in an attempt to make it even easier to shoot someone and get away with it. Yet a Hillsborough Circuit Court judge has ruled the new law can be used, and the conflicting decisions set the stage for the Florida Supreme Court to re-establish the appropriate separation of power between the legislative and judicial branches.
Angered by previous Supreme Court opinions on this issue, legislators shifted the burden of proof this spring in "stand your ground'' hearings. The new law says the burden of proof is on the prosecutor to show the defendant is not immune from prosecution — and not on the defendant to show he qualifies for immunity. In addition to flipping the burden of proof from the defendant to the prosecutor, the law sets an even higher standard of proof for prosecutors to be successful than defendants previously had to meet. No wonder prosecutors and law enforcement officers objected.
Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Milton Hirsch ruled earlier this month that legislators once again have exceeded their authority. He found the new law unconstitutional, writing that it is the legislative branch's role to make substantive law and the judicial branch's job to make procedural law. In this instance, the judge wrote, the Legislature veered into procedural law by shifting the burden of proof from the defendant to the prosecutor and changing the standard of proof required. Hirsch noted that the Florida Constitution bars one branch of government from exercising authority given to another branch, and he cited James Madison and the Federalist papers as he warned of the dangers of allowing one branch of government to invade another's territory.
"It applies in such cases because experience with government has shown that any momentary benefit expected from a change in law is usually outweighed by the lasting detriment resulting from a change in our constitutional system of checks and balances,'' the judge wrote.
The clear message to the Florida Legislature: Stay in your lane. The predicable response from legislative leaders: We're in charge.
House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, tweeted his criticism of the judgecriticism of the judge and defended the Legislature's authority, which has virtually no limits in his view. Of course, Corcoran also argues state lawmakers are closer to the people than members of city councils or county commissioners. His judgment about the role and responsibility of the legislative branch is skewed, to be kind.
This 2005 "stand your ground'' law should be repealed rather than strengthened. It eliminates the duty to retreat if you can safely escape and extends the castle doctrine regarding defending your own home to the streets and other public places. It has been used in dozens of cases to defend drug dealers, killers and other violent offenders even when they initiated the fight. It was unsuccessfully used earlier this year by Curtis Reeves, the man charged with shooting and killing another man in a Wesley Chapel movie theater. But now Hillsborough Circuit Court Judge J. Rogers Padgett has ruled the new version of "stand your ground'' can be invoked by the man accused of killing a former University of South Florida football player in a 2015 brawl on an Ybor City sidewalk.
Instead of repealing a law with a history of unintended consequences, the Legislature turned it upside down and stood with the National Rifle Association instead of with prosecutors. With conflicting opinions in different circuits about the new "stand your ground'' law, the Florida Supreme Court should soon take up the issue, side with the Miami judge, overturn the law and not allow the Legislature to run roughshod over the judicial branch.