Florida “Stand Your Ground” Law Ruled Unconstitutional

Just last week, in a ruling on Florida’s controversial “Stand Your Ground” law, a court ruled that an additional embellishment from the Florida legislature-strengthening the rule even further-is unconstitutional. The Stand Your Ground law has variations all over the country. However, Florida’s version has drawn particular scrutiny due to the highly publicized shooting of the unarmed Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman.

Stand your ground laws are becoming more and more common, if no less controversial, so it’s important to understand exactly how they work. Let’s take a look at what stand your ground laws do, then take a deeper look at this case’s history and what it means for the future of Florida’s Stand Your Ground rules.

Stand Your Ground Laws

Stand Your Ground laws are fairly simple, although substantial, change in law considering how controversial they are. In general, to establish self-defense as a legal defense to a crime it is necessary to show that you first made an attempt to retreat before responding with force to a real or perceived threat. There is generally an exception to this when you are in your home known as the “castle doctrine.”

Under a Stand Your Ground law, this requirement to even attempt retreat is removed. In other words, if you have a reasonable belief of an imminent threat of death or serious bodily harm you may immediately escalate to force for self defense–lethal or otherwise. The controversial part of this is that it removes the requirement of an intermediate attempt at escape. The attempt to retreat required by law is usually not so rigid as to require you to run away. If you have no means of escape or de-escalation then no attempt to retreat may be as much as you can do. Under a Stand Your Ground law, regardless of the situation you may immediately escalate to lethal force as self-defense. In the case of George Zimmerman this led to a self-defense ruling for gunning down an unarmed teen while he could have easily escaped.

stand your groundFlorida has had a Stand Your Ground rule in place since 2005. This law gave courts the ability to dismiss charges, such as those against Zimmerman, where the judge found evidence of reasonable self defense. It is this ability to dismiss that has led to this most recent ruling.

In 2015, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that these Stand Your Ground dismissals would come in a pre-trial hearing where the defendant would need to prove that they had a valid self-defense claim. This is standard, if you have a defense it’s up to you to prove it as opposed to forcing a prosecutor or plaintiff to prove a negative. In fact, the very existence of this hearing is beyond what is standard in criminal trials and allowed for much quicker and cheaper results potentially.

However, the response from the NRA to a ruling stating that you’re responsible for proving your own defenses was immediate serious criticism. Nearly immediately after the ruling they began putting heavy pressure on the Florida Governor-Gov. Scott-to push through a law reversing the situation. Just last month, this law finally came to fruition. The new law worked exactly the opposite of the Florida Supreme Court’s ruling. It required the prosecution to make provide clear and convincing evidence in a pre-trial hearing that there wasn’t self-defense in a given case. This obviously flipped the usual evidentiary rules on their head-taking the Florida Stand Your Ground law above and beyond where it was when George Zimmerman was tried. This sort of evidentiary hearing is generally reserved for cases where there is a potential for abuse on the part of plaintiffs such as libel or fraud cases. The change was especially shocking given that Stand Your Ground itself is already a serious change to the usual rules of criminal law.

Gov. Scott’s law was met with immediate criticism, including from the Florida Supreme Court itself. So perhaps it’s no surprise that less than a month later we’re already seeing a case ruling it unconstitutional.

The Government Overstepping Its Bounds

The judge’s ruling points to the unconstitutional overreach of Gov. Scott and Florida legislators in making this law in the first place. Judge Milton Hirsch, a Circuit Court Judge, based his ruling on the laws violation of constitutional separation of powers.

“As a matter of constitutional separation of powers…procedure cannot be legislatively modified,” The Florida Constitution specifically provides that the Florida Supreme Court determinines court practice and procedure. The only exception to this provided by the Florida Constitution is a legislative vote by super-majority–a situation that was not the case here. Evidentiary issues are considered procedural. Thus, the court here found the new law unconstitutional.

If the legislature wants to pass substantive laws, from gun control to street sweeping regulations, that’s totally within their right. They can make the laws which the courts then enforce. However, especially under the Florida Constitution, they do not have to power to change procedural rules such as filing due dates or evidentiary burdens.

The Future of the Case

As important as this ruling is, restoring normal order to criminal proceedings in Florida, there is absolutely no question that the decision will be appealed by the Florida Government. This means that the life of this new Stand Your Ground embellishment will probably not be determined for quite some time. But the law is exactly the opposite of a ruling of the Florida Supreme Court and the Florida Supreme Court has itself criticized the law as overreach, it does seem like the death knell of the rule may be a bit of a foregone conclusion.

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