Amendment to bill expanding 'stand your ground' would limit access to court records

Published March 20, 2014

TALLAHASSEE — Changes adopted Wednesday to a House bill expanding the scope of Florida's controversial "stand your ground" law would severely limit access to court records in the self-defense cases.

People found to have used justifiable force in a "stand your ground" hearing could apply to have all court records related to their case expunged and made unavailable to the general public, according to an amendment filed by Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach.

Gaetz said the purpose of the amendment is to provide more privacy for those cleared of charges.

"The point is to make sure that someone who appropriately uses the 'stand your ground' defense doesn't have their life ruined by the use of that defense," Gaetz said.

Yet court records are instrumental for people trying to understand implications of the 2005 law. A 2012 Tampa Bay Times investigation reviewed 200 cases, including ones that wouldn't be available if lawmakers approve the new language, and found that the law was used inconsistently and led to disparate results.

Gaetz, chair of the House Criminal Justice committee, said the proposal would not prevent the Times from conducting such an investigation because he claimed that the analysis was based on "media reports."

"A court record review is not what generated those statistics," Gaetz said.

Actually, the investigation was based on published newspaper reports, court records and documents obtained from prosecutors and defense attorneys to compile a partial list of self-defenses since 2005.

Gaetz said he had tried to do the same review and believed, instead, that the reporting was based entirely on media reports.

"But I'll look into it," Gaetz said. "It's not the intent of the bill to limit our access to data regarding the use of the defense and crime statistics. At that extent, we'll certainly take a look at it."

He has until today, when the full House votes on HB 89, sponsored by Neil Combee, R-Bartow, which would allow people to fire warning shots in self-defense without worrying about getting locked up for 20 years.

Supporters, including most Democrats, think the proposal could provide a more fair application of the "stand your ground" law in cases like the one of Marissa Alexander. The Jacksonville woman was sentenced to 20 years in prison after firing a shot at her estranged husband. An appeals court has ordered her to have a new trial.

Gaetz's amendment was adopted to HB 89 on a voice vote and goes far beyond warning shots. Neither Democrats nor Republican leaders seemed aware of exactly what the amendment would accomplish.

A defendant whose charges are dropped by a prosecutor or judge based on an affirmative "stand your ground" defense could apply for a "certificate of eligibility" to expunge the "associated criminal history." According to the amendment, a court can only order the records be expunged after the defendant applies for it.

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Gaetz has been a forceful advocate for the "stand your ground" law. He famously vowed last year that he wasn't going to change "one damn comma" in the law after hearings were announced in the wake of George Zimmerman's acquittal in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin.

NRA lobbyist Marion Hammer told her members that Gaetz was "one of the strongest, most dedicated supporters of the Second Amendment, your right to keep and bear arms and your right of self-defense that we have ever had in the Florida Legislature."

Asked about the proposed restrictions on records in the amendment, House Speaker Will Weatherford said he trusts Gaetz. "I'm not familiar with that concern or interpretation, I'd probably defer to Rep. Gaetz," Weatherford said. "He's a lot sharper with regards to the specific policy of that amendment, but I think that amendment passed pretty overwhelmingly today and the bill tomorrow will pass in a pretty bipartisan fashion as well."

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.