PJ Nilaja Patterson claims the encounter he had with an iguana was self-defense, claiming the 3-foot green iguana was the aggressor and that he was acting in self-defense when he killed the creature. A laceration on his arm from a bite required 22 staples to close up. Prosecutors counter that a surveillance video of the incident shows that Patterson tormented the animal, and then went into a violent rage when it bit him while defending itself. The iguana had to be put down due to the injuries suffered in the confrontation.
Patterson claimed immunity from prosecution under Florida’s Stand Your Ground law, that allows the use of force when defending oneself. A judge has denied the motion, however, Patterson still has a right to argue justifiable use of force at trial.
Green Iguanas are invasive creatures, and it is permitted to kill them under Florida law, but it must be done humanely. It’s not the first time we’ve covered the inhumane killing of an iguana that led to felony animal cruelty charges. The state has cleared it’s initial burden to allow the case to go forward, but to convict him, they will have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he did not have a reasonable fear, or that the level of force use was not justified.
It’s not the first time we’ve seen self-defense argued for the killing of an animal. In 2013, a man accused of killing a protected sandbar shark testified at trial in Fort Myers that he killed the animal in self-defense. The court rejected that claim and he was convicted at a bench trial. A man in Bonita Springs claimed self-defense (and defense of property) when he killed a bear that entered his property back in 2009. He argued that Stand Your Ground also granted him immunity, and the state argued that Stand Your Ground only applies to humans. The judge denied his motion, and he ended up agreeing to plead guilty to killing a protected species and do probation in lieu of a trial. I am not aware of any case law that goes as far to say that Stand Your Ground does not apply to animals, and the self-defense statute reads, “[a] person is justified in using or threatening to use deadly force if he or she reasonably believes that using or threatening to use such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another”. Fla. Stat. Sec. 776.012(2)- it does not say anything that would limit it to defending yourself (or others) against a person instead of an animal. (Law enforcement officers kill aggressive pets with some frequency, for instance, which is lawful.)
The hurdle for Mr. Patterson is that the iguana was only three feet, and they are docile vegetarians. They run away from people. If the video shows him provoking the animal, he will be unlikely to garner much sympathy from the jury, despite his injury. People don’t like it when animals die: He may explore a plea deal, but he’s facing a felony for animal cruelty.
Trial started today in the manslaughter case against Michael Drejka, who shot a man in Clearwater in a dispute over a handicapped parking spot. The entire incident was caught on dramatic surveillance video, which will be played for the jury. Inescapable is the fact that Drejka is white and the victim, Markeis McGlockton, a father of four, is a black man. Further complicating the case, the Defendant got in a dispute with another black man over the same handicapped spot a few weeks earlier and shouted a racial slur at him. The judge has ruled, due to the similarity of the incidents, that the prosecution will get to tell the jury about the prior incident, but not the racial slur he allegedly used.
Drejka is arguing that he was justified in his use of force under the stand your ground law. the stand your ground law provides there is no duty to retreat, but it still requires there be a reasonable fear of death or great bodily harm before deadly force is justified. Based on the video, Drejka has a challenging defense. Jury selection in the case will continue tomorrow.
We previously covered the story of former Miss Hialeah and Miss Miami Lakes, Vanessa Barcelo. Barcelo was initially arrested for aggravated battery for threatening a man who refused to leave her party after causing a serious disturbance. The state determined that she did not strike anyone with the bat, but proceeded a misdemeanor battery charges as Ms. Barcelo slapped the man at the end of the altercation. After a 9-hour hearing, the court found that the man’s refusal to leave, and since he had taken the bat, meant her fear was justified, and dismissed the case under Florida’s Stand Your Ground law.
Now Barcelo is suing the cop and the Hialeah Police Department for the arrest, and for propagating the story that she beat hit the guy with a bat. While police are generally immune from suits, this suit alleges that the officer was grossly negligent, and relies on language in the stand your ground statute that compels police to investigate and determine whether there was justification for the force used. Working against the civil defendants is that Barcelo indicates the officer would not even take a statement from her, there were multiple witnesses who stated she had not struck him with the bat, and the alleged victim was drunk, and initiated the incident when he refused to leave her house when it appeared had had attempted to assault her cousin.
One of the less discussed aspects of the stand your ground law is that it is supposed to help prevent charges like the ones on Ms. Barcelo. It is explicit that officers are supposed to do a little more digging, and to be very sure that force was necessary before they make any arrests. They could be in trouble here, in light of the facts and the sloppy investigation. This is one of the rare circumstances where the cop and the police force may face consequences for their wrongful arrest.
The motion has been redacted for release, so we can’t see what the state says are the specific statements that he gave to investigators, or that may be on the recording with the informant. However, at the end of the motion, the prosecutors summarize their argument, and indicate that he admitted that “he is responsible for the shootings at the Zombicon event” and that he repeated some admissions afterward to investigators. I’m going to add a Stand Your Ground tag to this, as it also appears he may have claimed his actions were justified due to someone else pulling a gun, but we don’t know specifics yet.
More details will come out when the discovery becomes public record, but not for a few weeks. Monday, the court will hold a hearing on the Pretrial Detention motion, where he will likely continue to be held with no bond. You can watch the NBC-2 video here.
In Fort Myers, the trial of Placido Moreno-Torres started yesterday: he’s on trial for murder for a 2016 incident in Lehigh Acres where he shot his wife and the neighbor who tried to intervene in their domestic dispute. It will be an interesting case, as he is likely to claim self-defense, because the neighbor came onto his property trying to break up the altercation, and only then did he retrieve the firearm. He will claim self-defense (and previously filed a stand your ground motion that was denied), but he has an uphill battle if he brought a gun to a fistfight. He is also charged with attempted murder, because after he shot the neighbor and his own wife, he held the gun to his neighbor’s sister’s head and tried to shoot her, only to have the gun misfire. There’s no self-defense argument there. He faces life in prison with a 25-year minimum under 10-20-Life. NBC-2’s Jaclyn Bevis is in the courtroom with live coverage on Twitter.
In Collier County, jury selection is underway for Lisa Troemner who is charged with killing her live-in boyfriend at their Marco Island apartment in 2014. They had apparently been arguing for a while, when it became physical, and she stabbed him. She tried to resuscitate him unsuccessfully, then went to a nearby convenience store to summon help. Again, self-defense is likely to be argued here. Also, a review of the court file indicates the Defense has sought the assistance of a false-confessions expert to challenge her statement, a blood spatter expert, presumably to challenge the findings at the crime scene. The case has been going on for more than three years, including an appeal of some matter while it was pending. She has been in custody the whole time, and is facing life in prison. There are some 150 witnesses listed, and the trial will take weeks, maybe five or more. Patrick Riley from the Naples Daily News is on this one, and has been tweeting from the courtroom as well.
Vanessa Barcelo, the 2017 Miss Miami Lakes that competed in the Miss Florida pageant, had been charged with battery from an incident that occurred at a party at her home several months ago. She hosted a party to promote her baking business, One Love Cakes, and her cousin over-indulged. She and other party-goers became concerned that the DJ was going to take advantage of the cousin, and grouped together to escort him out. That’s when the real trouble started…
Vanessa Barcelo, via facebook
Barcelo said she took an aluminum baseball bat and brandished it to intimidate the DJ, though she never touched him. She says he proceeded to grab the bat out of her hand and swing it around, before he handed it to a community security guard. A friend of Barcelo’s then struck the DJ, knocking him to the ground, at which point Barcelo jumped on top of him and slapped him. She testified in court that she did not know if he still had the bat, and she was afraid for herself and her guests. The court found her actions to be reasonable, and dismissed the battery charges against her.
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.
In the last month, a circuit court in Tampa held a Stand Your Ground hearing on the case of Curtis Reeves, a retired police officer. Reeves shot and killed a man named Chad Oulson after a heated argument in a movie theater. There is some dispute about the factual details, but the general case is based on an argument that began verbally, but became physical. The two exchanged words, and at some point, Oulson snatched a bag of popcorn out of Reeves’ hand, and threw it back at him. Defense lawyers allege that he also threw a phone at Reeves. Reeves pulled out a handgun and shot Oulson: CNN has the surveillance video of the incident.
The court held about two weeks of testimony. In her ruling, the judge found some of Reeves’ testimony to be contradicted by the evidence, and questioned his veracity. Under the current iteration of the Stand Your Ground law, the burden is on the Defendant to prove up his motion, but that could be changed down the road. Reeves can still argue that he was justified in defending himself to a jury, if he can convince them that he reasonably thought he was in fear of death or great bodily harm. Generally speaking, that’s hard to show when the other party is unarmed… Reeves brought a gun to a popcorn fight. Given that he’s in his 70s, I fully expect this case to end up going to trial, though it could still be a while.
When the Florida legislature passed the “Stand Your Ground” law, one of the provisions is for immunity from prosecution from those who used force in self-defense, under the law. The lawmakers failed to explain exactly how this immunity would be exercised. The courts then worked to apply the law, and crafted a system where the accused can file a motion to dismiss based on that promise of immunity, and would have a chance to show the court at hearing they were entitled to immunity.
The legal issue at the case, which is a clear instance of self-defense, was the level of force justified. Mr. Williams used deadly force to defend himself, but there was no indication that Fields, or his friends, were armed. Does the Stand Your Ground law permit someone to used deadly force (discharge of a firearm is always deadly force in Florida), against someone who is unarmed? It can. It’s a case by case basis: deadly force is permissible if a person reasonably believes they are in danger of imminent death or great bodily harm. [emphasis mine] The State decided that in this case, it could not prove otherwise beyond and to the exclusion of every reasonable doubt.
Local reporter Stacey Deffenbaugh asked me Thursday, after the manslaughter verdict in a another stand your ground case, how many stand your ground trials had occurred since the law passed in 2005. There’s no way of knowing for sure, as not all cases are murders. Further a lot of the cases not only don’t go to trial, but do not get filed on because the prosecutors recognize the difficulty of proof.