ORANGE PARK – State Sen. Rob Bradley doesn’t like Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, but not for the reasons many people might assume.
He doesn’t think it goes far enough.
“Stand Your Ground,” adopted in 2005, allows citizens to use deadly force in defense of their lives or property – instead of fleeing – even if they initiated the conflict with the other party. In 2015, a 5-2 Florida Supreme Court decision in Bretherick v. Florida found that people charged in “Stand Your Ground” shootings must prove in pre-trial proceedings that they are entitled to employ the immunity defense.
Bradley disagrees, and last month he re-introduced legislation – Senate Bill 218 – intended to “clarify” what he views as a misinterpretation of the law by Florida’s high court.
“The government has the burden of proof in a criminal case from the beginning of a case until the end,” Bradley said in a press release. “This fundamental premise is guaranteed in our Constitution and understood intuitively by all Floridians.”
Bradley, a Republican from Fleming Island representing the Seventh District, said prosecutors should have to prove before trial why a defendant cannot claim a “Stand Your Ground” defense. In the wake of the Bretherick v. Florida ruling in 2015, he introduced similar legislation. It passed in the Senate but died in a House committee.
Many fellow conservatives expressed concern that Bradley’s revision of the law would essentially force prosecutors to present the crux of their cases before going to trial.
Jared Bretherick was denied an immunity defense under “Stand Your Ground.” Bretherick, his parents and his sister were in Kissimmee on their way to Disney World when an SUV cut them off in traffic. The driver of the SUV, Derek Dunning, exited his vehicle, at which point Bretherick showed him his gun.
Dunning retreated to his vehicle. Police arrived to find Bretherick at the scene pointing his gun at Dunning in his SUV, basically holding him hostage, while awaiting law enforcement.
The Supreme Court’s decision upheld the original judge’s ruling against Bretherick. For Bradley, therein lies the misinterpretation of “Stand Your Ground,” saying the courts erroneously placed the burden on the defendant.
“We have an obligation to zealously guard the protections granted us all in the Constitution,” he said.
However, defendants face similar pretrial burdens in other instances, such as in cases involving competency, mental disease or defect and justification.
“The issue of immunity is different,” Bradley told Clay Today. “The bill speaks to the immunity hearing. In the state of Florida, there is a right to defend oneself.”
Also, Bradley is at odds with the American Bar Association, which released a report in September 2015 that generally indicted the very notion of “Stand Your Ground” legislation.
“An individual’s right to self-defense was sufficiently protected prior to ‘Stand Your Ground’ laws,” the report stated. It went on to say that such laws are applied unevenly, often favoring white defendants.
“There’s certainly going to be a robust debate during session, and I look forward to that debate,” Bradley said. “I don’t think it’s an unusual concept to place the burden of proof on the prosecution in ‘Stand Your Ground’ cases.”
Additionally, a study released last month in the “Journal of the American Medical Association” deemed Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law a public-health threat. It found that from the law’s inception in 2005 through 2014, the state has seen a 24.4-percent rise in homicides and a 31.6-percent increase in firearm-related homicides.
The analysis accounted for underlying homicide trends in Florida during that time period and compared Florida to states that don’t have “Stand Your Ground” laws.
“The implementation of Florida’s ‘Stand Your Ground’ self-defense law was associated with a significant increase in homicides and homicides by firearm, but no change in rates of suicide or suicide by firearm,” the study concluded.
Bradley contended that the study is misleading.
“Violent crime is down in Florida,” he said. “It’s at a 46-year low – all types of crime.”
“Stand Your Ground” legislation has faced fierce opposition from progressives and center-right moderates throughout the country. Perhaps the most famous and polarizing “Stand Your Ground” case was that of George Zimmerman, who shot and killed Trayvon Martin, an unarmed 17-year-old black boy, in Sanford in 2012. Zimmerman, who has a Caucasian father and Peruvian mother, went on trial the following year and was acquitted of both second-degree murder and manslaughter in front of an international television audience.
Then-28, Zimmerman followed and eventually confronted Martin after he saw the boy walking through his neighborhood wearing a hoodie because he thought Martin looked suspicious. The two scuffled and Zimmerman shot Martin to death.
Martin had been walking to the home of a relative, whom he was visiting, after going to a local 7-Eleven. Several neighbors reported hearing screams or seeing “something” from a distance, and they called 911. Also, Martin was on a cellphone call with a friend before and during part of the incident, but the only eyewitness to the confrontation and killing was Zimmerman himself.
Under the “Stand Your Ground” law, theoretically, Martin had a right to defend himself with deadly force, but he was overmatched by the armed Zimmerman, who was 11 years older and outweighed him by 27 pounds. Because Martin was a minor, he was prohibited from possessing a loaded firearm unless he was engaged in a lawful hunting or marksmanship activity.
According to the Bar Association, in states with “Stand Your Ground” laws on the books between 2005 and 2010, approximately 37 percent of gun-homicides were ruled justified in cases of a white shooter and black victim. Less than five percent were ruled justified in cases of a black shooter and a white victim.
After white-on-black shootings, the next highest percentage of shootings ruled justified was white-on-white, at approximately 15 percent, the Bar Association report stated. Black-on-black shootings were determined justified at a rate of around six percent.
Email Christiaan DeFranco at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @cdefranco.