Should Fla. Lawmakers Or High Court Have Power To Change Stand Your Ground Law?

Dec 5, 2014

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Should the Florida Supreme Court or the state Legislature have the power to shift the burden of proof to a defendant or the state prosecutor in a Stand Your Ground case? That question was recently before the high court as well as the Legislature earlier this year. So, could that come back into play again next legislative session?

The Case Before The Court

Eric Friday is an attorney for Jared Bretherick. In his version of the events, Bretherick and his family were traveling in Central Florida in 2011, when another man’s SUV sideswiped the family’s vehicle.

Friday says Bretherick’s dad, Ronald, then honked the horn, and Derek Dunning then cut off the Indiana man’s with his SUV, got out, and threatened Bretherick’s family. And, the attorney says Jared Bretherick pointed his father’s gun at Dunning in self-defense to protect his family until police arrived.

“After Derek Dunning approached the Bretherick family to threaten them, they waited seven long minutes on 911 for help to arrive,” said Friday. “For over seven minutes, Ronald Bretherick was falsely imprisoned, trapped in his vehicle against his will. For over seven minutes, the only thing keeping Derek Dunning at bay from continuing his attack on this family was the gun in Jared Bretherick’s hands. For over seven minutes, Derek Dunning sat in his car, in a situation of his own making, trapping a disabled vet from escaping a situation that Dunning had created.”

That’s Friday, speaking during oral arguments before the Florida Supreme Court Tuesday on behalf of Bretherick. Bretherick—22-years-old at the time—was taken into custody, and charged with aggravated assault with a firearm, though no shots were fired. When he tried to claim self-defense, a lower court disagreed.

So, now, Friday is trying to get the state Supreme Court Justices to change the current standard for the defendant—in this case, Bretherick—having to prove a self-defense claim, and place that burden on the prosecutors instead during a pre-trial Stand Your Ground hearing.

In such a hearing, the defendant could be immune from prosecution, if it’s found that there was a need to use deadly force if they feared for their life and other lives.

But, some justices, like Barbara Pariente, weren’t sure Friday was using the right venue for this sort of argument.

“Go to the Legislature and have them specify that that’s what they want of the judiciary in a pre-trial evidentiary hearing,” said Pariente. “I mean, in my view, we’d be looking at it and trying to guess what the Legislature actually wanted.”

The Issue Did Come Up In 2014 Session

Friday in his role as the lead attorney and lobbyist for gun-rights group Florida Carry Incorporated had actually worked alongside the National Rifle Association’s Marion Hammer in trying to put that same provision in a bipartisan Senate bill (SB 130) seeking to tweak the Stand Your Ground law earlier in the year.

Hammer had said the change is needed because it’s not fair for a person “fighting back” to have to prove their innocence on the assumption that they’re already guilty. The gun-rights organization—big backers of Florida’s Stand Your Ground law—even filed a brief in support of Bretherick’s position in June.

“This law is not about the convenience of the courts or the convenience of prosecutors, or law enforcement. It’s about protecting innocent people who come under attack through no fault of their own and then are treated like criminals by the judicial system.”

Earlier in the session, Tallahassee State Attorney Willie Meggs was one of the state prosecutors who was adamantly against the change. Similar to remarks made by the state prosecutor during oral arguments and a brief filed in response to the NRA’s, Meggs says it’s not fair to change the standard that’s used in similar Florida hearings.

“Under insanity, if you’re claiming you’re insane, you have the burden to prove that you’re insane. We don’t have the burden to prove that you’re sane,” said Meggs, back in March. “In alibi, if you claim the affirmative defense of alibi, you have to prove your alibi. We don’t have to disprove your alibi. You have to establish it and prove it. So, why in the world do we have this one law where the burden is on the state to prove that a person was not standing their ground?”

Will the Legislature Try Again?

But, at the end of the day, it’s uncertain what form the bill will take if the bill is brought up again. Still, one of the sponsors,  Sen. David Simmons (R-Altamonte Springs), says he still hasn’t ruled out filing a similar bill in the upcoming session.

“I certainly see the possibility of doing that,” said Simmons. “I know we’re going to have to address some issues with respect to Stand Your Ground because of the amendments that were made last Spring that did pass. And, so, this will give us an opportunity to correct not only a couple of glitches that exist in the bill and some other things.”

Last year, Simmons and former Senate Democratic Leader Chris Smith’s bill were moving through the process. But, in a procedural move by the Senate’s Rule Chair John Thrasher—under the direction of then-President Don Gaetz—the bill stalled. Now, Simmons is the new Rules Chair, under new Senate President Andy Gardiner.

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