Florida Prosecutors Keeping Eye On Bills Relating To Stand Your Ground, 10-20-Life Laws

Sep 25, 2015

Credit MGN Online

Some Florida lawmakers are hoping to revive an effort that could change the role of State Attorneys prosecuting a “Stand Your Ground” case. And, some prosecutors are also against another bill giving judges more discretion in handing out mandatory 10-20-Life sentences.

Last year, a bipartisan bill died in the legislature, that would have made tweaks to Florida’s Stand Your Ground law. Included in the measure was changing the role of a prosecutor during a pre-trial hearing, when a self-defense claim is made.

Usually, a person claiming self-defense must go before a judge to prove the claim is justified. Now, a new bill by Rep. Dennis Baxley (R-Ocala) shifts that burden onto the prosecutors. He also helped write Stand Your Ground 10 years ago.

“One of my concerns too is that there were people pleading to lesser charges, simply because they can’t take the risk with a 20-year possibility of jail time,” said Baxley. “So, many people that were exercising self-defense wind up making pleadings, which they shouldn’t be put in the corner.”

His bill comes on the heels of a recent ruling by the Florida Supreme Court that states shifting the burden would require prosecutors to prove their case twice.

“I think we need to provide legislative clarity that we fully intend to stand with the person that’s exercising self-defense, and that the burden of proof should be with the state attorney,” added Baxley. “You know, in this country, you’re innocent, until you’re proven guilty, particularly when we have passed legislation to give you that presumption in your favor.”

But, Gainesville State Attorney Bill Cervone disagrees. He represents the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association on a number of legislative issues.

“Our position on the law as it exists now is this has always been that this has always been an affirmative defense, which under law is something for the defense to raise and the Supreme Court recently ruled that, that was the proper interpretation of the statute, and we think that, that’s the way it should be,” he said.

Still, National Rifle Association’s Marion Hammer says she disagrees with the majority opinion, saying the current system wasn’t always that way.

“Following passage of the Castle Doctrine Law, prosecutors and some judges created, without any legislative authority, a special Stand Your Ground hearing and reversed the burden of proof requiring an individual who has exercised lawful self-defense to prove before a judge that he or she was innocent. That flies in the face of our judicial system,” she said.

Both Baxley and Hammer agree with the dissenting opinion by Justices Charles Canady and Ricky Polston. It states making someone prove the claim during the immunity hearing “curtails the benefit of the immunity from trial.”

“Well, you just need to remember the dissenting opinion is the side that lost, and so, that’s probably not the best approach to do legislation: ‘Let’s see what the loser said and follow it.’ But, that would not be untypical of our government,” said Tallahassee State Attorney Willie Meggs.

Meggs, who's opposed to the Stand Your Ground law , is also an opponent of Baxley’s bill. He’s also against a bill by Rep. Neil Combee (R-Polk City) that gives judges discretion when it comes to handing out the mandatory 10-20-Life law.

“Well, there’s a lot wrong with that bill,” added Meggs. “First off, if you have a mandatory 10-20-Life, that it’s not mandatory, then that’s kind of a contradiction in itself.”

Combee calls it the “Self-Defense Protection Act.” He says it builds on the so-called “Warning Shot” bill he filed for the 2014 session seeking to address the unintended consequences of the 10-20-Life law. It’s inspired by Marissa Alexander, a Jacksonville woman who received a 20-year prison sentence for firing a warning shot during an alleged domestic violence dispute with her husband.

“Unfortunately you get into situations where folks who are unwilling to accept plea deal or subject to the mandatory minimum: 20 years,” said Combee. “And, judges—I would say—have complained about not having any choice, but to impose that sentence. And, they’re really not imposing it. It’s imposed by statute right now.”

But, Meggs says it’s not needed, because prosecutors are already making decisions based on whether they want to depart from the 10-20-Life law because they’ve investigated the case. He adds judges only have a partial view of an entire trial.

“First off, a judge, 1) cannot even sit on a case where a judge has gone out and interviewed the witnesses, gone out and interviewed the victim of the crime, gone out and done an investigation,” said Meggs. “So, the person in the courtroom that has the least knowledge about the case to decide what to do on the sentence is the judge because they’ve interviewed no one, if they interviewed anybody. Now, if the judge doesn’t want to impose a sentence, move over to civil where they don’t have to do the hard task of being a criminal judge.”

Meanwhile, Combee says he worked with Families Against Mandatory Minimums on this bill. And, while the bill wasn’t brought forth by the NRA, Hammer says she intends to support it.

For more news updates, follow Sascha Cordner on Twitter: @SaschaCordner.