Monday, February 19, 2018
Editorials

'Stand your ground' protects criminals

Florida's "stand your ground" self-defense law should be titled the Criminals Relief Act. When the controversial law was enacted in 2005, law enforcement officials warned it would be invoked by people prone to violence and mayhem. Seven years later, it's clear those fears have been realized. Gang members, drug dealers, domestic abusers and other criminals have walked away from killings thanks to "stand your ground," and it's clearer than ever that the law should be repealed. Lawmakers who suggest a tweak can fix the problems are putting politics over sound public policy and the safety of Floridians.

The most recent analysis of more than 100 fatal "stand your ground" cases by Tampa Bay Times staff writers Kameel Stanley and Connie Humburg found that nearly 60 percent of people claiming the self-defense legal protection had been previously arrested, and one in three were accused of a violent crime. All told, 119 people who invoked "stand your ground" after killing someone had been arrested 327 times, not counting traffic violations or other minor arrests.

This is a far cry from the scenario lawmakers envisioned when passing the most expansive self-defense law in the country at the urging of the National Rifle Association. The law expands the "castle doctrine" to give people the right to use lethal force without the duty to retreat whenever they feel at great bodily harm. The thinking was that law-abiding people should be able to defend themselves against an unprovoked assault.

But, just as law enforcement warned at the time, the record demonstrates that people invoking the law are often armed and dangerous, not innocent victims of a random attack. They are people like Maurice Moorer, who landed in jail multiple times and allegedly threatened his then-wife with violence and guns before he killed his ex-wife's boyfriend in 2008. Moorer shot into his victim's car 14 times, but he wasn't prosecuted after he claimed his victim was going to the car for a gun, and a gun was later found in the car.

They also are people like Manatee County drug dealer Tavarious China Smith, who walked away from two homicides more than two years apart under "stand your ground."

The law came to the public's attention after neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman invoked it after killing Trayvon Martin, an unarmed African-American 17-year-old, at a Sanford apartment complex earlier this year. Zimmerman wasn't charged until a public outcry resulted in a review by a special prosecutor and second-degree murder charges.

With the Martin case still fresh, even some lawmakers who voted for the law shake their head at the way it's been applied. But too many of them claim the law can be modified and salvaged, and they are too mindful of opinion polls that show support for the law. Ask a criminal lawyer about how the law could be rewritten, and it's not that clear. The law must be available to everyone on an equal basis. There is no way to legally exclude people with criminal records from its protection. No matter how a self-defense law like "stand your ground" is written, it will disproportionately absolve people quick to anger, who tend toward violence. Standing your ground against intruders in your own home under the castle doctrine is one thing. Standing your ground in a public place while involved in an altercation you may have helped initiate is another. Repeal is the only reasonable answer.

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