It is bad enough that Florida lawmakers are rushing to expand the application of the "stand your ground" law that should be repealed rather than made even broader. But the House took recklessness to a new extreme Thursday by approving legislation that also allows defendants in self-defense cases to keep from the public the entire record of the case. That would essentially create secret arrests and prosecutions, and it has no place in a justice system that has to be held publicly accountable. Lawmakers should be repealing "stand your ground,'' not fashioning a cover-up for those hiding behind a law that legalizes deadly violence.
The House approved a bill Thursday that expands the loophole against criminal penalties under "stand your ground" by legalizing the threat to use force in self-defense cases. This would open the door to more frontier justice by allowing people to fire warning shots from a firearm without having to worry about being arrested on assault charges. It is a ridiculous measure that endangers anyone in public places or those living in condos, apartments or other multifamily settings.
An amendment rushed through this week by Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, would allow those found to have used justifiable force to seek to expunge their court records so the public could not have access to them. Gaetz said those found to have acted lawfully should not "have their life ruined" by the paper trail of a court record. If prosecutors or the courts opt to drop or dismiss charges in a self-defense case, those cleared could have the entire criminal history expunged from the court file. In other words, it never happened.
"Stand your ground" already makes it easy to get away with murder. The statute allows for a pretrial hearing so a judge can examine whether the broad immunity for self-defense under Florida law would even allow a case to go forward. With the House change, the accused could use the pretrial hearing to avoid both a full-fledged trial and a public examination of the case.
By expunging the records, prosecutors could drop charges without any public accounting. Trial judges could dismiss these charges with no explanation. The net effect is that the most powerful elected officials in any county could dismiss a murder case without a public rationale. Not only does the measure create secret trials and courts, it invites selective enforcement statewide. There would be no way to ensure that justice was applied equally from Miami to Palatka. And it would enable defendants in these cases to lawfully lie about their criminal histories. What public purpose does that serve in a state with a constitutional right to openness?
Arrests and criminal charges are public records, and criminal trials are conducted in public. Those accused of crimes have a right to a fair trial but not to anonymity. By Gaetz's rationale, why should anyone accused and later cleared of any crime "have their life ruined" by the existence of a court file? Would it be okay for prosecutors and judges to hold every trial in secret, disclosing only those that end in a conviction?
Gaetz is the same gun zealot who vowed when hearings on the "stand your ground'' law were called after George Zimmerman was acquitted in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin that he would not change "one damn comma.'' Now he wants those killers hiding behind this bad law to leave no public record of what happened when they escape criminal charges. That violates the very tenets of the American criminal justice system and the right to public records spelled out in the Florida Constitution that Gaetz claims to care so much about.