The Florida Supreme Court recently ruled on a case relating to Florida’s controversial Stand Your Ground law. The matter—which pit State prosecutors against public defenders and defense lawyers—was also a matter of contention during last year’s legislative session.
Before a defendant goes to trial, they must go before a judge in a pre-trial hearing to prove their self-defense claim is justified. But, Florida lawmakers looked last year to put that burden on the prosecutor.
It was contained in a bill seeking to tweak Florida’s Stand Your Ground law by Sen. David Simmons (R-Altamonte Springs).
“I think there’s ample reason to say that because the state has the burden in all prosecutions the duty to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty, that there is nothing wrong with imposing upon the state the burden of proving that the defense that is being raised is not a viable defense by the person who is relying upon Stand Your Ground,” said Simmons.
It stemmed from a case in 2011, where an Indiana man claimed Stand Your Ground, after pointing a gun during a confrontation with another driver. Jared Bretherick claims the other driver cut his car off and threatened his family. Bretherick’s lawyers argued the Legislature never clarified whether prosecutors or the defense had the burden of proof.
That bill never made it through, though. But, the Florida Supreme Court recently ruled the burden should stay with the defendant—because shifting that burden could require prosecutors to prove their case twice.
Eric Friday is Bretherick’s lawyer, who also pushed for the legislative change as part of a gun rights group he represents called Florida Carry. He says it’s interesting to note in the majority opinion, that nowhere do the justices ever assert that they are actually following the legislature’s intent.
“Rather what they say is it’s the only way they can comply with what the legislature has ordered without causing too much problems or too much work for the state attorneys,” said Friday. “When we start talking about making legal decisions based on the convenience of the state or what is too time consuming for the state or the judiciary, we are going directly away from the concept of innocent until proven guilty and the right to a fair trial and a day in court.”
But, Tallahassee State Attorney Willie Meggs—who opposed the legislative change—disagrees.
“What they’re asking for is immunity from prosecution and they ought to have to show why they’re entitled to it,” said Meggs. “So, I agree with the decision of the court, obviously, that the burden ought to be on the person trying to claim the right to stand their ground. And, not put the burden on the state to show that they did not have the right to stand their ground.”
However, Meggs says he’s not so sure he agrees with the prosecution in pursuing Bretherick’s case.
“You’re going down a six-lane highway, and somebody cuts you off and blocks you in traffic,” added Meggs. “It’s probably a good time to pull your gun out and say, ‘I’ll shoot you if you come any closer.’ I mean, why would anyone do that?”
Still, Meggs says overall, he remains very opposed to Florida’s Stand Your Ground law.
“This law is probably about the dumbest law that’s ever been passed…the Stand Your Ground law,” he stated.
As for the main author of Florida’s Stand Your Ground law, Senator Simmons says it’s still a very sound law that’s “common sense” and has been adopted throughout the U.S.
But, since the legislative effort failed to tweak the law that contained the provision to place the burden of proof on prosecutors during an immunity hearing, will he try again in 2016?
“There were things that we looked at that we believed needed tweaking and improving, and if it’s part of a package so that other protections are given to assure the fairness to all proceedings relating to Stand Your Ground, then, yeah, I would certainly consider looking at that as a bill that might be filed,” said Simmons.
And, Bretherick’s lawyer, Friday, says he’d be supportive if lawmakers choose to revisit the issue again. Meanwhile, Bretherick’s case is now expected to be set for trial in Osceola County.
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