It’s been used to defend a neighborhood crime watch volunteer’s fatal confrontation with a black teenager in Central Florida, a shooting inside a Pasco County movie theater and a shooting outside a Miami nightclub. Now Florida’s indefensible "stand your ground’’ law is being cited by Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri as the reason he can’t arrest a man for shooting and killing another man over parking in a handicap parking space. Blame the Florida Legislature and the National Rifle Association for legalizing vigilante justice.
No one did the right thing in the latest "stand your ground’’ case that occurred Thursday in a convenience store parking lot in North Pinellas. Britany Jacobs should not have parked without a permit in a handicap parking space, even if her three young kids were in the car and her boyfriend was just running into the store to buy chips and drinks. Michael Drejka should not have been so aggressive in confronting Jacobs about parking illegally. And Jacobs’ boyfriend, Markeis McGlockton, should not have come out of the store and shoved Drejka to the ground.
But why should it be legal for Drejka to respond by pulling out a handgun, shooting McGlockton in the chest and keeping the gun aimed at the 28-year-old as he staggered into the store? The "stand your ground’’ law has transformed Florida into the Wild West, and it has escalated common disputes into deadly confrontations.
Gualtieri has a reasonable explanation for concluding he cannot arrest Drejka, 47, and charge him with a crime — even as he makes clear he doesn’t agree with the law’s impact. The 2005 "stand your ground’’ law says there is no longer a duty to retreat if you can safely escape, and it extends the castle doctrine regarding defending your own home to the streets and other public spaces. The Legislature made a terrible law worse last year by shifting the burden of proof in "stand your ground’’ hearings to the prosecutor to show the defendant is not immune from prosecution — and not on the defendant to show that he qualifies for immunity. The 2017 revision even sets a higher standard of proof for prosecutors to be successful than defendants previously had to meet. It’s remarkable anyone gets charged with a crime for shooting and killing someone as long as they have even the flimsiest claim that they felt threatened by thrown popcorn or a shouting match or a shove.
In the short run, Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe has to reach his own conclusion about whether to charge Drejka with a crime for shooting and killing McGlockton. As the sheriff noted, a few seconds passed between the time Drejka hit the ground and the time he shoots. But it will be a close call either way, and the peaceful protests that are expected to continue should be directed toward Tallahassee.
Meanwhile, the Florida Supreme Court will decide whether the 2017 change to the "stand your ground’’ law should apply to older cases. A Miami-Dade Circuit Court judge found the changes were unconstitutional last year. The 3rd District Court of Appeal ruled in May that the current law is constitutional but should not apply to retroactively. Ideally, the Supreme Court also would throw out the entire change and revert to requiring defendants to prove they qualify for immunity instead of forcing prosecutors to prove they don’t.
In the long run, voters should hold their state lawmakers accountable for bowing to the NRA and making Florida a more dangerous place. Elections have consequences, and they should ask legislative candidates whether they support the "stand your ground’’ law or would support repealing it — and then vote accordingly in November.