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Romano: Has 'stand your ground' made Florida more tolerant of deadly force?

Lakeland police say that Lakeland City Commissioner Michael Dunn shot and killed Christobal Lopez as Lopez tried to leave the Vets Army Navy Surplus store on Oct. 3 without paying for a hatchet. This is a screen grab of a store surveillance video released by police on Monday. [Lakeland Police Department]
Lakeland police say that Lakeland City Commissioner Michael Dunn shot and killed Christobal Lopez as Lopez tried to leave the Vets Army Navy Surplus store on Oct. 3 without paying for a hatchet. This is a screen grab of a store surveillance video released by police on Monday. [Lakeland Police Department]
Published Nov. 2, 2018

In another era, in another state, the video might be too unsettling to watch.

A suspected shoplifter is looking for a way to slip past a Lakeland store owner who is holding a gun. The shoplifter gets one hand on the door at the same time the store owner reaches out to stop him.

He nearly makes it outside as the store owner grabs his shirt, and then opens fire. The shoplifter falls face first and the store owner stands over him for several minutes, watching a life slowly come to its end.

The video is equal parts sad, voyeuristic and disturbing.

It has also become a digital gathering spot for legal and moral debate. Once more, the infamous "stand your ground'' provision in Florida law is ripe for a public vetting. And a scene that would have been horrifying not so long ago is now legitimately defended by many.

So what does that say about Florida life in 2018? Has "stand your ground'' changed the way we approach self-defense, and has it made us more tolerant when it comes to deadly force?

Bullet by bullet, is our perspective changing?

"If you'll forgive me for being short, the answer is yes,'' said Bob Dekle, a longtime assistant state attorney who prosecuted serial killer Ted Bundy. "What "stand your ground' has done is taken an unnecessary killing and made it into a justifiable killing.''

• • •

The Polk state attorney said Friday evening that his office did not believe Lakeland store owner Michael Dunn was protected by the stand your ground law and charged him with second-degree murder in the death of Christobal Lopez.

That is not the end of the matter, however. Dunn can still pursue stand your ground protection in a pre-trial hearing and later, perhaps, seek a self-defense claim in front of a jury.

Like the Markeis McGlockton shooting that was captured on video outside a Clearwater convenience store in July, the circumstances in this case are nuanced.

Lopez was accused of trying to steal a small hatchet and, although he was attempting to flee the store, it could be argued he had a deadly weapon because the hatchet appears to be in his right hand. It is clearly visible next to his body after he was shot.

And in that sense, the Lakeland video shares common ground with the McGlockton case. McGlockton was also backing away when he was shot, but only after knocking Michael Drejka down and stepping ominously toward him.

So, even though Florida jurors are instructed to focus only on the facts of a given case, do these high-profile and controversial confrontations gradually move the needle of public perception toward a more permissive definition of self-defense?

"If people aren't paying attention to the fine details of a video, there might be a tendency to simplify it and walk away with the wrong message,'' said Clearwater defense attorney Stephen Romine. "So if a guy gets acquitted, they think it's okay to shoot someone if they shove you in a parking lot. Or it's okay to shoot a shoplifter if he tries to leave a store.

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"That's the danger of anybody watching one of these global-type videos and thinking it establishes how and when you are able to use deadly force.''

Casual observers can be excused if they do not completely grasp the legal minutiae of the "stand your ground'' statute. Even experts wrestle with the vague concepts of whether a person "reasonably believes'' they are in danger, or what constitutes "imminent peril.''

In the Clearwater parking lot shooting, there was a split second when McGlockton was standing over Drejka after knocking him down. At that moment, it is reasonable to believe that Drejka was in imminent danger. But two seconds later, when the gun is fired, McGlockton has already retreated.

In the Lakeland store shooting, Dunn could argue that he had a legal right to detain Lopez and he shot him only after realizing the hatchet was in the other man's hand.

Those claims may not have been persuasive 20 years ago, but the legal hurdle for defending oneself was inarguably lowered with "stand your ground.''

For some, that's a scary thought.

For others, it was overdue.

The legal distinction of "stand your ground'' is that it removed a person's obligation to retreat before responding with deadly force. The practical distinction, in today's world, is that it often provides a justification to overreact.

"We keep pushing societal boundaries with 'stand your ground','' said Charles Rose, a professor at Stetson University College of Law. "In the minds of a lot of people there is an acceptability of behavior that was not acceptable a short time ago.

"You can make an anecdotal argument that we've normalized the use of firearms for self-defense … and depending on your perspective you either think that's a good change or not.''

It is often said by Second Amendment supporters that an armed society is a polite society. Rose has a different interpretation. An armed society, he said, is a fearful society.

That's a semantic distinction that likely depends on a person's world-view.

What is less open to debate is the practical effect of "stand your ground'' in Florida's criminal justice system. It's been on the books for more than a decade, and has undoubtedly changed the perception of what's an acceptable response in the heat of confrontation.

That goes for judges, prosecutors and jurors alike.

Also for store owners and wannabe crusaders.

"It's been discussed and criticized and scrutinized for so long that it's no long such an anomaly. It's the new normal,'' said West Palm Beach attorney Leonard Feuer, who has successfully used "stand your ground'' as a defense in numerous cases and said acquittals are becoming more common.

"There's now this new standard out there of when you can use deadly force.''


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