Robin Fuson
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Does Florida’s Revised “Stand-Your-Ground” Law Apply To Older Cases?

Criminal Defense

In May, a Miami court determined that Florida’s revised “stand-your-ground” law is constitutional, but the court also said that it does not apply in cases that started before the statute took effect.

The problem is that only a week before the Miami court handed down its ruling, a court in Tampa determined that the revised stand-your-ground law is, in fact, a “retroactive” statute.

WHAT HAPPENED WHEN THE STAND-YOUR-GROUND LAW WAS REVISED?

Less than a year ago, the Florida Legislature tweaked the state’s famous stand-your-ground law. Under the new version of the statute, a prosecutor must disprove a criminal defendant’s self-defense claim in a separate hearing before any courtroom trial can begin.

For nearly a year since the lawmakers in Tallahassee changed the controversial stand-your-ground law, judges across the state of Florida have issued rulings that are in conflict with one another.

Only weeks after the new statute took effect, two Miami circuit court judges declared that the revised statute was unconstitutional.

WHAT IS THE CRITICAL LEGAL QUESTION?

But that was only the first of a number of lower court rulings, and it failed to address the critical legal question: Can the revised stand-your-ground law be applied retroactively to cases that began before the law was revised?

That conflict has stalled dozens of Florida criminal cases as defense lawyers, state attorneys, Florida judges, and a number of criminal defendants wait for an answer from the courts.

“Some judges are saying yes and some judges are saying no,” Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger told the Tampa Bay Times. “It’s obviously something that really needs to be resolved by the Florida Supreme Court.”

WHAT DID FLORIDA’S ORIGINAL STAND-YOUR-GROUND LAW PROVIDE?

The original stand-your-ground statute has been Florida law since 2005. Critics charged that the law fostered a shoot-first attitude and sometimes allowed killers to get away with murder.

The stand-your-ground law eliminates any legal “duty” to retreat prior to using deadly force in self-defense. The original law also made it easier for judges to dismiss charges against defendants who claim self-defense.

Responding to a rising number of cases dismissed on the basis of self-defense claims, Florida’s Supreme Court ruled that suspects who seek to have charges dropped by claiming self-defense must assume the burden of proof and demonstrate that they were, in fact, acting in self-defense.

HOW WAS THE ORIGINAL LAW REVISED IN 2017?

A number of Florida’s lawmakers didn’t care for that ruling.

With support from the National Rifle Association, the stand-your-ground law was amended in 2017 to shift the burden of proof in these cases back to the prosecutors, who are now compelled to disprove a defendant’s self-defense claim with “clear and convincing” evidence.

The law also now lines up with the Florida Public Defender Association’s position that the state should have to prove guilt during every phase of a criminal case.

The revised law “helped level the playing field between us and the prosecutors,” according to Stacy Scott, a public defender in the state’s Eighth Judicial Circuit.

HOW WILL THE CURRENT CONTROVERSY BE RESOLVED?

But the question remains – to which cases does the revised law apply? Clearly, it applies in cases where charges were filed after the revised law took effect. But the state’s courts remain divided regarding cases that began prior to June 9, 2017 – the date that the revised statute became law.

The Florida Attorney General’s official position is that “the Legislature did not intend for its recent amendment to the Stand Your Ground law to be applied retroactively.”

The Florida Supreme Court will eventually have the final say on the question. Until then, legal proceedings have stalled in a number of cases around the state.

“Now we’re in a position where we have to figure out how to wade through this confusion and gridlock,” Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren told the Tampa Bay Times. “It’s a waste of taxpayer money and it disrupts our system when we don’t have consistency.”

WAS THE STAND-YOUR-GROUND LAW SUBSTANTIALLY CHANGED IN 2017?

But one Tampa Bay prosecutor doesn’t really believe the law has substantially changed, and he’s not taking a side in the dispute.

Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe explains that under the original law, a defendant had to prove self-defense with a “preponderance of the evidence.” Now, the law says that it is the state’s burden in these cases to provide “clear and convincing evidence.”

McCabe told the Tampa Bay Times that “at the end of the day,” when arguments and evidence are presented in court, the revision to the law really does not make a great deal of difference.

IF YOU ARE ACCUSED OF A VIOLENT CRIME, WHERE CAN YOU TURN?

Precisely what is the stand-your-ground law? It offers immunity from prosecution for homicide defendants who can show that their actions fell within law’s self-defense provisions.

Of course, anyone who is accused of a homicide or any other violent crime in the Tampa Bay area must be represented by a skilled criminal defense attorney.

If you’re charged with a homicide, a good defense lawyer can determine if stand-your-ground is an argument that might work in your case as a defense strategy.

When stand-your-ground is offered as the defense in a homicide case, the defendant is admitting that a homicide was committed but is claiming that the homicide was a necessary act of self-defense.

HOW CAN A DEFENSE ATTORNEY HELP?

If you are charged with homicide in Florida, and if you are claiming that you acted in self-defense, your defense lawyer will have to show that you acted within the provisions and the criteria of the stand-your-ground law.

In Florida, you’ll need to be represented by an experienced Tampa criminal defense attorney who is familiar with the stand-your-ground law and who knows what it takes to prevail on a felony defendant’s behalf.

WHEN WILL THE STAND-YOUR-GROUND CONTROVERSY BE RESOLVED?

No date has been set, but it’s likely that Florida’s Supreme Court will rule quickly regarding the “retroactivity” of the revised stand-your-ground law because a number of cases around the state cannot move forward without direction from the state’s highest court.

But whether or not the law applies in old cases, if you are accused of a violent crime in central Florida – and whether or not you acted in self-defense – you will need to have a skilled criminal defense lawyer fighting vigorously for justice on your behalf.

Homicide charges are the most serious charges in the criminal justice system. If you are charged with homicide or any other violent crime, you must have legal counsel immediately.

Nothing is more important than your freedom and your future. If you are charged with any crime get the legal help you need – without delay. You have that right.

Robin Fuson
By Robin Fuson