It took Hillsborough County deputies two days to arrest Trevor Dooley, the school bus driver accused of shooting and killing a Valrico Air Force veteran on a basketball court. The arrest on manslaughter charges may have been complicated by the state's "stand your ground" law, which allows the use of lethal force if a person feels threatened by another with great bodily harm. The law makes it more difficult to make arrests and prosecute assailants when there has been a fight.
It has been five years since the Florida Legislature disregarded the advice of prosecutors and law enforcement and passed the controversial "stand your ground" law at the behest of the powerful National Rifle Association. Under the law, a person has no duty to attempt to retreat from a threat of violence even if that is a safe option.
Florida has not become a "Wild West" with gunfights in the streets as many feared, but the law has interfered with prosecutions. In numerous cases, serious charges were not pursued because it appeared that the killer might technically be protected by the "stand your ground" law. In one Miami case last year, occupants of two cars exchanged gunfire during a high-speed chase and one man was killed. The gunman received a three-year sentence in a plea agreement. Prosecutors worried about potential "stand your ground" immunity.
In Dooley's case in Hillsborough, the Sheriff's Department says he carried a gun as he confronted a boy riding a skateboard on a basketball court. The episode ended with 41-year-old David James shot dead. He had been playing basketball with his 8-year-old daughter when he and Dooley argued over the skateboarding.
In responding to the incident, the Sheriff's Office had to follow state law that forbids police from detaining a suspect who acts in self-defense. Deputies had to exclude the likelihood that Dooley was standing his ground under Florida law before they could legally arrest him. And the "stand your ground" law is so broad and vague that as long as a person is doing nothing illegal, he can kill another person if he is reasonably put in fear of great bodily harm — even if the victim is unarmed.
The "stand your ground" law is also used by defendants at trial to justify their actions. Rachel Wade, who is serving 27 years in prison for killing romantic rival Sarah Ludemann with a steak knife in Pinellas County, claimed Ludemann had started the fight, pulling her hair and punching her.
In another ongoing case, Eric Canonico of south Tampa claimed stand-your-ground immunity after he was arrested for holding three teens at gunpoint, including the son of USF football coach Skip Holtz, in an effort to keep them from attacking his girlfriend's son. But with facts in dispute a circuit judge refused to dismiss the charges.
In the James shooting death, the "stand your ground" law makes law enforcement's job harder and may muddy the prosecution. But don't expect the Legislature to tightened the law any time soon. That leaves prosecutors to push back against this license to kill, despite the challenges. People who are so quick to bring a gun to an argument cannot be allowed to avoid serious criminal charges when they turn a neighborhood disagreement into mortal combat.