Florida Legislature Agrees on Stand Your Ground Changes

As the legislative session neared a close last week, the Florida House and Senate reached a compromise to a bill that substantially changes the Stand Your Ground Law in Florida. The new law would shift the burden from from the Defendant to the prosecutor at the pretrial hearing to prove that the case is strong enough to proceed against the Defendant. If Governor Scott signs the bill, the burden will no longer be on the Defendant at the ‘Stand Your Ground Hearing’.

Though both the House and Senate agreed that they wanted to put the burden on the prosecutor for the pretrial hearings, it wasn’t until the last day of session on Friday that both houses came to a compromise on what that burden should be. The Senate was pushing for a beyond a reasonable doubt standard, while the House position to use a clear and convincing standard ultimately won out. The bill will now go to Governor Scott’s desk to sign before it becomes law. It is expected he will sign it, as the bill garnered widespread Republican support in both houses of the legislature.

What does this change mean? The original ‘Stand Your Ground’ law, among other things, created a right of immunity from prosecution for people who use justifiable force to defend themselves. Unfortunately, the legislature did not clearly establish a procedure for determining when immunity was appropriate, that is, how do you know when force is justified so that a person cannot be prosecuted. Over the next 12 years, the courts formulated a procedure whereby a hearing would be held prior to the case going to trial. The courts put the burden on the Defendant to demonstrate that he was immune from prosecution.

The legislature has now essentially said, hey wait: the burden is on the state to prove a case. We didn’t establish immunity to burden the Defendant, or to remove the burden from the State… we created it to protect those who used force to defend themselves. This new law, if it is signed by the Governor, will put the burden on the prosecutors to demonstrate by clear and convincing the likelihood that the defendant was not justified in using force before they can put the defendant to trial (where they will still have the burden beyond and to the exclusion of every reasonable doubt).

While there was strong support for the bill, there was opposition from anti-gun activists, as well as from many prosecutors. The opposition from prosecutors may seem surprising from a generally conservative profession, but this bill directly affects them by making it more difficult to prosecute cases where use of force will be raised as a defense. It has been speculated that prosecution costs will rise, but the other effect of the bill may be to discourage prosecutors from proceeding on cases they are less likely to win. The cost may end up being a wash when all the factors come to bear, but only time will tell. In the meantime, this bill will definitely help people who claim justifiable use of force.

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