Appeals Court Determines Felony Gun Possession Blocks Stand Your Ground But Not Self-Defense

Jul 18, 2014

Stand Your Ground comes with specific limitations
Credit Sal Falko via Flickr

The Florida legislature passed the so-called Stand Your Ground statute in 2005 to expand protections for self-defense.  But as Nick Evans reports, one south Florida man’s case shows the law is far more complex than it may at first seem.

Harvey Hill was attacked on his front porch by two men.  Cornered, he pulled out a gun and shot one of them in the stomach.  The state charged Hill with aggravated battery with a firearm, and he claimed the Stand Your Ground defense, asking that the charge be dropped. 

But there’s one problem.  Hill is a felon. 

The state argued it was illegal for Hill to have a gun in the first place, and so he couldn’t claim Stand Your Ground immunity.  Stetson law professor Susan Rozelle says Stand Your Ground creates a presumed justification for use of force in certain circumstances like home or car invasion, but that presumption has a cost.

“The price the legislature attaches to that expansion is the additional limitation of not engaging in unlawful activity,” Rozelle says.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Dennis Baxley (R-Ocala) says the legislature drew this distinction to make sure illegal acts didn’t become legal.

“We didn’t want it to apply to situations where people were involved in illegal activity,” Baxley says, “whether it was drug wars, or gang wars, or anything other than a law-abiding citizen innocently carrying on their life, in their home, in their car, or somewhere they had a right to be.”

The Fourth District Appeals Court agreed with the state’s reasoning and said Hill’s possession of a gun blocked his Stand Your Ground claim.  But then Hill’s lawyers tried a different tack.  Again, they wanted to throw out the aggravated battery charge, but to do so they looked to a different statute.  Actually, they turned to one that ‘Stand Your Ground’ amended. 

Florida’s pre-existing self-defense law wasn’t scrapped when stand your ground passed.  Lawmakers did remove the assumption a person should try to leave a threatening situation, but Rozelle says defendants still have to show they were justified in using force.

“The defendant who is asserting self-defense, is always going to be in a position of saying, ‘hey jury, I was reasonable in believing that I needed to use this force,’” Rozelle says.

Unlike with stand your ground, where use of force carries a presumption of justification, relying on Florida’s underlying self-defense law requires the defendant show their use of force was necessary.

But outspoken opponent of the stand your ground, Rep. Alan Williams (D-Tallahassee) says this case shows the law is inconsistent.

“We’re trying to get an ambiguous law off the books,” Williams says.  “Because we know that our communities are not safe.   And we know that these court cases and the way that the laws are applied is confusing to not only the lay person, but to those professionals that have to interpret, enforce and try this law”

Baxley says it’s too early to determine whether the Hill case will prompt further amendments, but he adds nothing’s ever finished in legislation.  The case returns to the criminal court now where Hill’s justification will be decided.  Regardless of these findings, though, Hill is still on the hook for three other counts including felon in possession of a firearm or ammunition.