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Bill Tweaking Stand Your Ground Law Clears First Hurdle, But What’s Its Main Challenge?

MGN Online

Should Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law be tweaked?  A bipartisan proposal that would make some changes to the controversial measure passed the Senate Judiciary Committee 7-2 during this legislative committee week.  But, the bill has its share of critics, including a powerful House member who could hold the key to its survival.

The Senate bill puts guidelines in place for neighborhood watch programs. It also authorizes law enforcement agencies to fully investigate Stand Your Ground claims. It also mandates that someone claiming self-defense must not be engaged in unlawful activity—a matter of concern for Florida’s public defenders and something Altamonte Springs Republican Senator David Simmons hopes to fix.

“The AVON lady who is engaged in selling some product out of her house, and maybe violating a zoning law shouldn’t be subjected to an argument that a prosecutor might make that she is engaged in unlawful activity. We never intended that when we passed the law. But, unfortunately there are some cases that I’m aware of where prosecutors have taken a very strict interpretation of what is engaging in an unlawful activity,” said Simmons.

Simmons, the original author of Stand Your Ground, is working with Senate Democratic Leader Chris Smith to tweak the controversial law. Both had similar legislation, but the measures were later rolled into one bill.

The most contentious provision in that combined bill is to protect innocent bystanders. Simmons says that means if the person claiming self-defense hurts an innocent bystander in the process of fending off an attack from an aggressor, they could be sued.

“What happens if the person who’s involved shoots and kills an innocent bystander three-year-old? Is that person as a result of the civil immunity, immune from claims by the parents of that three-year-old child who was totally innocent standing on the sidelines? Well, that was not addressed in 2005. It’s left for clarification. This is the chance to clarify that issue to be sure there is no misinterpretation,” he added.

Simmons says provisions in the bill were suggestions that came from Governor Rick Scott’s Stand Your Ground task force, but St. Augustine Republican Senator John Thrasher says he’s not sure that’s one of them.

“It concerns me that we are going beyond what the task force recommended in this particular situation, and so, what you’re saying is I think we’re putting them in jeopardy even though they were defending themselves—and, inadvertently, you said shoot up in the air Senator Simmons?—if they potentially harm somebody else from a third party liability standpoint. So, that’s my concern,” said Thrasher.

And, the National Rifle Association’s Marion Hammer says she too agrees that holding the person defending themselves liable is wrong.

“Well, I think the person who is responsible for the innocent bystander is the attacker.  And, so I don’t think that language is going to hold up, and it was clear that this is a work in progress,” said Hammer.

Hammer adds while the NRA itself doesn’t have a position at this time on the bill, she believes this bill, which seeks to clear up misinterpretation, will itself be misinterpreted.

“I don’t think it’s going to get very far because how many years will it be before they start misinterpreting what was done this year, although there is potential,” she added.

Meanwhile, over in the Florida House, Shalimar Republican Representative Matt Gaetz says overall, he lacks confidence in this so-called improvement of the law. He’s likes the existing law. He’s also the chair of the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee, which would have to hear the bill before it went anywhere.

“I don’t think the Senate bill tests any belief, because I think it lacks any substance,” said Gaetz.

Still, at the request of House Speaker Will Weatherford, Gaetz is expected to schedule a hearing for a bill to repeal Stand Your Ground sponsored by Tallahassee Democratic Representative Alan Williams. That may happen before the end of December.

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