Senate's Warning Shot Bill Moves Forward, Could See More Changes

Mar 4, 2014

A measure inspired by the story of a Jacksonville woman who received a lengthy prison term for firing a warning shot unanimously cleared another Senate hurdle Tuesday. It’s the second time around for the so-called “Warning Shot” bill in that same committee.

Last month, the bill got held up after undergoing multiple changes and time ran out in a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. So, on the first day of the 2014 Legislative Session, Baker Republican Senator Greg Evers got a second chance to vet his bill.

“It allows for a person that if they threaten the use of force that would otherwise be permissible if they actually did that force, it allows them to be free from prosecution for just the threatening of the force, whether that’s displaying the firearm or whatever,” said Evers.

In the case of Marissa Alexander, she fired a warning shot during an alleged domestic dispute with her husband. She initially claimed self-defense, but a judge said that defense didn’t apply. She later received a mandatory minimum prison term of 20 years for aggravated assault without the intent to kill. Alexander is currently awaiting a new trial.

Her case has shone a spotlight on Stand Your Ground and Florida’s 10-20-Life law, and the bill’s House sponsor, Polk City Republican Representative Neil Combee says he wants to get rid of the unintended consequences of the law. His bill is already heading to the House floor, but it’s different from its Senate counterpart.

The Senate measure now says a person cannot be charged with aggravated assault for threatening to use force under Florida’s 10-20-Life statute, but the House version does not. The new change—made at the request of State Attorneys—is opposed by Duval County Sheriff John Rutherford.

“The Florida Sheriffs don’t believe we should take out the minimum mandatory for aggravated assault. If they’re actually convicted of a crime, then it’s not self-defense. If you’re convicted of a crime, you’re going to be looking at 10-20-Life. So, it doesn’t make sense…you don’t need to pull it out, because if it’s self-defense, you’re not going to be sentenced for anything,” said Rutherford.

The bill has had the support of the Florida Public Defenders Association, but a provision now contained in both the House and Senate version has Alachua County Public Defender Stacy Scott a bit worried. It allows for a person deemed not guilty to petition to have their record expunged. But, she says the current language appears to give prosecutors sole discretion over that person’s record.

“When they choose to drop a case, they list reasons why they dropped the case. They may list that they dropped the case because a person acted in self-defense and make that finding, which then would allow a person to apply to get their record expunged or they may list another reason: insufficient evidence, or victim does not wish to proceed. So, in essence, subsection one of the amendment gives sole discretion to the attorney to decide whether a person who’s charges were dropped by them would be eligible for expungement,” said Scott.

A new change all parties agreed on, tacked on to the bill Tuesday, was brought forth by St. Augustine Republican Senator John Thrasher. It seeks to further clarify how people can legally threatened to use force.

“So, I think this amendment basically will not inadvertently subject a person to criminal penalties if she or he makes threats or bluffs to use deadly force when the person would have been able to under existing law to use actual force,” said Thrasher.

The measure next goes to its last stop, Thrashers’ Senate Rules Committee, and Evers says there could be more changes ahead as he works to iron out concerns.

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