A critique of one legislator’s opposition to Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law

Sebastian points us to a for/against pair of opposing editorials on Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law. Like Sebastian notes, it’s good to see an MSM source at least printing both sides of the issue, but I do want to point out some issues I have with the “against” editorial writer’s reasoning.

It was just after 4:30 one quiet morning in Tallahassee when a gun fight broke out between rival street gang members, the gunfire piercing the slumber of many residents in this part of the Panhandle where ringing church bells are the more typical Sunday wake-up call.

When it was over, 15-year old Michael Jackson was mortally wounded, later pronounced dead at a local hospital. The two other gang members? According to the trial judge, they were acting in self defense in the 2008 shootout, and under Florida’s Stand Your Ground law, the killing was justified. “The law,” said Judge Terry Lewis, “would appear to allow a person to seek out an individual, provoke him into a confrontation, then shoot and kill him if he goes for his gun. Contrary to the state’s assertion, it is very much like the Wild West.”

Certainly a tragedy, but the last sentence contains a gravely flawed bit of reasoning by the judge. Why should mere words invalidate a person’s ability to defend themselves against deadly force? If I were to verbally deliver every one of the gravest insults known to man to your face, does that give you the right to shoot me? Should I not be allowed to defend myself without having to first try to run away in the face of an immediate threat to my life?

If the dead gang-member pulled a gun in response to mere verbal insults, then the other two were defending themselves – and the proper defensive response to deadly force is deadly force. “Someone ever tries to kill you, you try to kill ’em right back.

Additionally, the SYG law does not protect someone who is “engaged in an unlawful activity” (FL Statute 776.103, parts (2)(c) and (3)). I direct your attention to FL Statute 877.03, regarding “Breach of the Peace” and “Disorderly Conduct”, violation of which is a second degree misdemeanor – in other words, a crime. Deliberately “seek[ing] out an individual” for the purpose of “provok[ing] him into a confrontation” is a crime, and (despite my statement above) actually does remove the protection of FL’s SYG law. But, like any other crime, it does require that the state first prove guilt of that crime beyond a reasonable doubt. Which is the way it should be.

In Miami-Dade, Circuit Judge Beth Bloom ruled that Greyston Garcia, who had chased and then fatally stabbed a man attempting to steal Garcia’s car radio, was “well within his rights to pursue the victim.”

The victim, she ruled, had swung a bag at Garcia, thereby justifying Garcia’s deadly response. He never once called 9-1-1. But he is now a free man.

He leaves out a couple of points in this case that are mentioned in the other editorial supporting SYG. To quote in part:

The new provisions of law, commonly known as “Stand Your Ground,” provide that a law-abiding person can meet force with force only if it is necessary to do so to defend a life or stop a forcible felony. […]

One of the few examples that Smith points to was the recent case where a victim of a burglary chased the thief to recover his stolen property and was attacked by the criminal. The thief swung a bag of stolen radio equipment at the victim in an attempt to bludgeon him. At the hearing, a medical examiner testified that the 4-to-6-pound bag of metal being swung at the victim’s head would lead to serious bodily injury or death. [Emphasis mine.]

So, the man was acting to stop a felony (I assume here that the value of the radio and damage to the car would lift the crime to felony status). It’s not clear from the information presented if it was a “forcible” felony under FL law, but that is really irrelevant here, because he didn’t use deadly force until he was presented with a threat to his life, and it was clearly a case where the classic “citizens arrest” using non-lethal force to restrain the thief would be justified (a witnessed theft of the person’s own property).

But “Stand Your Ground” is not just about guns or gun rights. It’s about the ability to extend the same home self-defense rights to the streets: to kill — with a gun, a knife, even a car — anyone someone perceives as a threat.

This is an oversimplification that misses a critical part of the law: It doesn’t allow someone to kill “anyone [they perceive] as a threat”. It allows the use of force, yes, up to and including lethal force, against a person someone reasonably perceives to be an immediate threat, if that force is reasonably believed necessary to stop that threat. The distinction is absolutely critical.

Absent a witness, the presumption of innocence remains with the individual who delivered the fatal strike.

If you believe that’s a problem, then I’ve got some bad news for you. In America, the presumption of innocence remains with anyone charged with a crime, always. That’s always been the way our legal system is supposed to work, from the very beginning. A defendant is presumed innocent until proven guilty.

An arrest cannot happen unless law enforcement finds probable cause, essentially moving the decision of guilt or innocence outside a jury’s reach.

Again, that’s how our legal system works. In all criminal cases, the police cannot arrest you unless they have probable cause to believe that you have done something illegal. It’s all because of that pesky Fourth Amendment thing. It does not “mov[e] the decision of guilt or innocence outside a jury’s reach” because the jury has never been able to hear a case before probable cause has been established – and if there’s not enough evidence for mere probable cause, how is a jury going to get anywhere close to “beyond a reasonable doubt”?

Oh, and FYI, just because the police don’t arrest someone immediately doesn’t mean they can’t come back and arrest them weeks, months, or even years later. But if they arrest someone before they have all the evidence together, the whole “speedy trial” part of the Sixth Amendment comes into play, meaning that even a truly guilty defendant can force a trial before the police have all the evidence needed to get a conviction, thereby getting an acquittal simply because the prosecution wasn’t ready.

Since its passage seven years ago, the number of “justifiable homicides” in Florida has soared 200 percent.

A statistic presented without context is meaningless. How many of those would have been prosecuted and resulted in a “not guilty” verdict under previous laws? How many would have involved a duty to retreat under the old law but the shooter was otherwise blameless? What has the murder rate done in the same time period? What has the overall violent crime rate done over the same period? These are only some of the questions necessary to understand if this increase is good or bad, and whether it’s related to the SYG law or not.

END OF LINE

[Source: The Daytona Beach News-Journal editorial, retrieved 4/10/12]

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