State News
6:00 pm
Mon March 17, 2014

Warning Shot Bill To Be Taken Up This Week On Senate Floor

A bill allowing someone to threaten to use force in a situation where they feel threatened without fear of prosecution is expected to be discussed on the Senate Floor this week.  And, the so-called “warning shot” bill that was modified at each committee stop may go through another change on the floor.

Former Republican lawmaker Victor Crist’s 10-20-Life law was intended to crack down on criminals. That’s according to Greg Newburn, the Florida director for the group Families Against Mandatory Minimums, who says Crist never meant it to apply in self-defense cases, yet it has—multiple times.

Newburn adds the short term result is a series of what he calls “shockingly unjust cases.”

“Ronald Thompson, who got 20 years for discharging his firearm in what he considered to be a self-defense situation. 20 years for Marla Swearingen, who fired in the air to stop a fight. 20 years for Eric Wayant, who was surrounded by a group of men outside a bar and fired his gun into the air, after they threatened to beat him. 20 years for Lee Waller, for firing into the wall of his own home, etc," said Newburn. "Just these four cases is 80 years of prison time and almost $2 million in tax money to incarcerate people who have never hurt anyone in their lives.”

And, Newburn says the long-term result is people who find themselves in a life-threatening situation wonder whether they should threaten to use force or decide not to because they fear they’ll face a minimum mandatory sentence.

So, Baker Republican Senator Greg Evers’ bill seeks to clarify the existing self-defense law by removing that fear of prosecution and allowing the display of a weapon or firing of a warning shot. It also allows for an exonerated person to petition to have their record expunged.

At the bill’s previous stop, Evers removed aggravated assault from Florida’s 10-20-Life law. That was what Marissa Alexander was initially charged with when she got a lengthy prison term for firing a warning shot during an alleged domestic dispute with her husband in Jacksonville.

And at its last stop, Senate Rules Chairman John Thrasher replaced that change with an amendment Evers agrees with.

“What this amendment does is it replaces the amendment that removed the aggravated assault in 10-20-Life, and the new amendment only removes acts of self-defense or self-defense of others from the 10-20-Life,” said Evers.

Alachua County Public Defender Stacy Scott says while the amendment is not everything she’d hoped for, the Florida Public Defenders Association believes it’s a start to help alleviate some unintended consequences.

“It allows the judge to use discretion in sentencing in cases where it’s a close case of self-defense, but maybe not a perfect case of self-defense. Nothing in this amendment would prevent a judge from giving the maximum or more, but it would allow a judge to get out from underneath the mandatory punishments that can be so severe and unjust in cases, like the case of Marissa Alexander," said Scott.

But, Altamonte Springs Republican Senator David Simmons questioned the language in the new change that states a person must have what’s called a “good faith” belief that such conduct is necessary to defend themselves.  Simmons wonders whether that definition should be expanded to help the defense, and Public Defender Scott says that might be good idea.

“I believe that using the term ‘good faith’ is a step down from the normal criteria or standard in self-defense cases, which would be a reasonable belief. So, the use of the term ‘good faith’ is intentional, and I do believe as written, it could encompass ‘good faith but mistaken,’ but that language was not inserted in there. I don’t believe it’s necessary, but it might be helpful,” added Scott.

Both Evers and Thrasher promised to look into that change before it heads for a floor vote, and the measure passed the Senate Rules Committee with bipartisan support. Still, the bill received its first “no” vote in the Senate from Democratic Leader Chris Smith.

“Well, I think now is the wrong time to send a message to Floridians that you should shoot a warning shot. I understand that taking away the 10-20-Life for people that do a warning for themselves, instead of killing someone, but I think in this climate right now, I’m uncomfortable doing something that can be perceived as a ‘hey, I can shoot a warning shot.’ The perception scares me with this current climate in the state of Florida,” said Smith.

He says instead, the measure should give judges discretion over the law as a whole. The bill is expected to be taken up on the Senate floor Thursday. Its House companion is already headed for the floor.

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