The Florida Legislature is considering significant changes to the “stand your ground” law that will make our communities less safe and unnecessarily disrupt our criminal justice system while doing nothing to protect those who legally own guns.
The Legislature also has falsely suggested the proposed changes will have no financial impact. The proposed legislation fundamentally changes our jury system by requiring, for the first time in Florida legal history, that state prosecutors would have to disprove a legal defense to even begin prosecuting a case. The proposals quickly moving through this year’s legislative process threaten public safety and undermine the fair and equal criminal justice system that our community deserves.
In 2005, the Legislature enacted the nation’s first “stand your ground” law, which removed a person’s duty to retreat before using force in self-defense of himself, another person, his home, or property. In legal terms, “stand your ground” expanded the scope of the long-standing defense of self-defense. Procedurally, a criminal defendant asserting “stand your ground” immunity must establish by a preponderance of evidence (more than 50 percent standard) at a pretrial hearing that he or she acted in self-defense.
Proponents of changing the law claim it restores the fundamental principle of justice that a citizen is innocent until proven guilty. Nothing could be further from the truth. Our Constitution guarantees the innocence of the accused until every element of the crime has been proven beyond a reasonable doubt. As the state attorney for Hillsborough County, I wholeheartedly embrace our extremely high burden of proof to obtain a conviction. The proposed changes, however, create an unnecessary and technical legal hurdle in the law to force the state to disprove a defense — which would often require proving a negative — beyond a reasonable doubt, upending the constitutional standard and centuries-old common law.
The impact of these changes would be monumental. Under the legislation, SB 128, a defendant simply can make an unsworn, unverified representation to a court that he acted in self-defense. Then, before prosecution can even begin, the state would have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant did not act in self-defense. This would require essentially two trials. Supporters of the bill claim that it is limited to cases involving the use of firearms, but the scope of the changes encompasses all violent crime. Every murder. Every stabbing. Every beating and assault. And every domestic violence attack.
To implement these proposals, we will need more judges, more courtrooms, more prosecutors and more law enforcement officers. In Hillsborough County, this would impact more than 5,000 cases per year. If only half of those cases involve a claim of “stand your ground” immunity, the time and resources in my office alone amount to nearly $3 million annually.
The bill wastes taxpayer dollars by needlessly increasing the workload of prosecutors and law enforcement officers. Beyond the economic impact, the proposed changes undermine public safety by taking police officers off the street and forcing them into the courtroom, and by making it harder to prosecute violent crime. The changes will embolden violent criminals and prevent justice for victims. As written, the bill is anti-law enforcement and anti-law and order.
I stand ready and willing to work with supporters of these bills who seek sensible implementation of “stand your ground” immunity to protect responsible gun owners. At a minimum, the Legislature should require defendants to provide facts sworn under oath and reduce the standard to a preponderance of the evidence. The proposed legislation is not about guns or innocence; it is about public safety and the effective operation of our criminal justice system. I call on legislators, gun rights advocates, survivors of domestic violence and all stakeholders in our criminal justice system to work together toward sensible solutions instead of the wholesale, irresponsible changes found in these proposals.
Andrew Warren is state attorney for the 13th Judicial Circuit, which covers Hillsborough County.
[This op-ed was first published March 2 in the Tampa Bay Times, republished with permission.]