Stand Your Ground Tweak Bill May Not Be Dead In House, Despite Recent Opposition

Mar 18, 2014

Tallahassee State Attorney Willie Meggs
Credit State Attorney's Office

State Attorneys say they’re against Florida’s Stand Your Ground law.  At least one of those prosecutors says he’s also dead set against the so-called bipartisan tweak bill now moving in the Senate.

Tallahassee State Attorney Willie Meggs is railing against an NRA-backed provision in the bill that he insists would “make a bad policy a lot worse.” He says he opposes Stand Your Ground because Florida residents no longer feel they have the duty to retreat in a situation that could call for it.

“Well, this law says ‘oh no, you don’t have a duty to do it. You feel like you’ve got to, you kill ‘em.’ And, trust me, they are! They’re following the law, they’re just standing their ground,” said Meggs. 

"We can always take up the Senate bill eventually. So, we will let that play out and I will have a discussion with the Speaker."

He says the law would be even worse if it contains an amendment recently tacked onto a bill that would modify the controversial law. Altamonte Springs Republican Senator David Simmons and Senate Democratic Leader Chris Smith are pushing that amendment.

It allows an innocent bystander caught in the crossfire of someone defending themselves to sue that person. It also provides that neighborhood watch programs be administered by local law enforcement, and includes a rule that neighborhood watchers cannot pursue a suspected wrongdoer.  Law enforcement must also fully investigate Stand Your Ground claims, and it further clarifies that a person who provokes the use of force can’t use the Stand Your Ground defense.

However, during its last stop at the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, it was a change in what happens during an immunity hearing that upset Meggs the most.

Currently, if someone claims self-defense—before they can go before a jury—they must go before a judge and prove their claim is justified. But, in Simmons’ latest bill, that burden of proof is now placed on the prosecutor—a provision that Gainesville Public Defender Stacy Scott likes.

“This burden is already on the state at trial. They must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant did not act in self-defense when the defendant raises the affirmative defense of self-defense at a trial. So, this bill corrects a confusing shift of the burden from the defense on pre-trial hearing to the state at trial,” said Scott.

But, State Attorney Meggs says if the burden is not met, the case can get dismissed before it can go to a jury.

“It is an immunity statute. The judge would rule 'I find that you’re immune from prosecution for your conduct,' and we’re dead ducks,” said Meggs.

He says it’s also unfair to subject prosecutors to this new standard that’s not seen in other much similar hearings in Florida.

“Under insanity, if you’re claiming you’re insane, you have to prove that 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. 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,” asked Meggs.

But, Senator Simmons, the bill’s sponsor, says it is fair because it’s something state attorneys already have to do.

“And, when the prosecutors claim that somehow or the other that this is unfair, it’s not unfair. It’s the same standard that they have at the time of the trial,” said Simmons.

The National Rifle Association also backs that part of the amendment, and so does Ocala Republican Representative Dennis Baxley, who helped write the 2005 Stand Your Ground law. He says it helps to make the bill a bit more attractive.

“So, I think that’s an important standard in criminal justice that you’re innocent until proven guilty and the burden of proof should be on the prosecutors. So, I think that could improve those hearings,” said Baxley.

And, speaking as chair of the House Judiciary committee—which oversees the respective criminal justice committees that would take up the bill—Baxley says the measure may not be dead in his chamber. They’re just waiting to see what happens in the Senate.

“And, I think they’ve actually probably happened upon a couple of things that I think are very good. And, we’re just going to wait and see what they do with it. We can always take up the Senate bill eventually. So, we’re going to let that play out its course and I’ll have a discussion with the Speaker. And, there may be something we pick up that improves the bill,” added Baxley.

Meanwhile, the Senate bill has two more committees to go before it heads to the floor. While it passed its last committee unanimously, Fleming Island Republican Senator Rob Bradley voted against the amendment because he too shares the State Attorneys concerns.

Simmons says he’s working with the Florida Prosecutors Association to try and iron out their concerns. He’s also working with law enforcement who feel the current language in the bill regarding overseeing neighborhood watch programs holds them liable.

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