Robin Fuson
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Has Florida’s Stand Your Ground Law Reduced Violent Crime?

Criminal Defense

The Florida “Stand Your Ground” (SYG) law, adopted by this state in 2005, did not create a “new” defense for homicide defendants. The legal use of deadly force in self-defense if someone reasonably believes that such force is necessary to avoid death or great bodily harm has been the law in Florida for more than a century. Instead, the 2005 SYG law broadens the scope of a self-defense claim. It establishes that a person who is acting in self-defense has no “duty” to retreat and is thus allowed by law to “stand” his or her “ground.”

Before SYG became the law in this state, a person could not use deadly force in self-defense without first using every reasonable means within his or her power to avoid the danger, including retreat. The SYG law also provides that when an intruder unlawfully enters, attempts to enter, or refuses to leave a dwelling, residence, or vehicle owned or lawfully occupied by another person, the owner or occupant must have had a reasonable fear of death or great bodily harm to justify using deadly force, and the intruder is presumed to have intruded with the intent to commit a crime involving force or violence.

Has violent crime dropped in Florida since 2005 as a result of SYG? That is what Florida State Senator Dennis Baxley, an original sponsor of the legislation back in 2005, said this year in March. “We’ve seen violent crime continuously go down. Is that not the public policy result that we would want?”

Baxley told his fellow lawmakers as they consider a revision of the SYG statute. Opponents of SYG point to a rise in justifiable homicides in Florida since 2005, and they say that in many of these cases, self-defense could have been accomplished just as effectively by retreating rather than by shooting.

HAS VIOLENT CRIME REALLY DECREASED IN FLORIDA SINCE 2005?

Senator Baxley has consistently defended SYG by linking the law’s adoption twelve years ago to Florida’s purportedly declining crime rate. But has violent crime really decreased in our state since 2005? And if so, has the SYG law been responsible in any way for that decline?

PolitiFact is a fact-checking website operated by editors and reporters from the Tampa Bay Times. PolitiFact rates the accuracy of claims by elected officials and others, and it recently investigated the accuracy of Senator Baxley’s claim that SYG has resulted in a lower rate of violent crime in Florida since its adoption in 2005.

Data from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting statistics shows that from 2005 to 2015, the violent crime rate in Florida decreased by a cumulative 34.9 percent overall. However, crime was also dropping prior to 2005, and crime rates actually increased in 2006, 2007, and 2014.

Thus, while violent crime has been dropping overall in Florida, the assertion that crime has been “continuously” declining is not a precise description. Bill Bales, a professor in the College of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Florida State University, told PolitiFact, “I do not think that is quite the correct word to use.”

But the key issue is the SYG law itself. Senator Baxley has confirmed that he believes the SYG law – in particular – has directly led to a demonstrable drop in violent crime in Florida. Senator Baxley, however, did not offer any evidence to back up his statement, and in any event, such an assertion is almost impossible to prove. “I would posit that it [SYG] has had little or no effect on any decrease,” according to Charles Rose, a law professor at Stetson University.

WHAT DOES THE RESEARCH TELL US ABOUT SYG?

In truth, the evidence that does exist actually does more to disprove Baxley’s statement than to prove it. In November 2016, JAMA Internal Medicine published a study conducted by David Humphreys of the University of Oxford, Douglas Wiebe of the University of Pennsylvania, and Antonio Gasparrini of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. These researchers determined that firearm homicides increased in Florida after the 2005 passage of SYG.

In fact, after SYG went into effect in 2005, firearm homicides in Florida increased substantially. “These increases appear to have occurred despite a general decline in homicide in the United States since the early 1990s,” the researchers wrote. States without SYG – such as Ohio, New York, and Virginia – experienced no comparable rise in firearm homicides during the same period of time. “Our findings support the hypothesis that increases in the homicide and homicide by firearm rates in Florida are related to the ‘stand your ground’ law,” the researchers concluded.

PolitiFact thus concluded that Florida’s dropping crime rate is not linked to SYG, since the decline is part of a national crime rate drop that includes states with no SYG law. If SYG impacted crime in any way, PolitiFact says, crime may actually have increased in Florida after the law went into effect in this state in 2005. But how may the SYG law impact you personally? That is what the average person in Florida wants and needs to know.

HOW DOES SYG BENEFIT HOMICIDE DEFENDANTS IN FLORIDA?

SYG in Florida provides potential immunity from prosecution for anyone accused of a homicide who can legally establish that his or her actions fell within the meaning of the statute. Any person who is charged with a homicide or with any crime of violence in the state of Florida will benefit from obtaining the advice and services of an experienced Tampa criminal defense attorney. In most cases, a criminal defense attorney can tell you right away if SYG will be a plausible defense in any specific case.

When SYG is the defense against a homicide charge in Florida, the defendant admits that he or she committed a homicide but claims the act was necessary to avoid death or great bodily harm. When a homicide case goes to trial and SYG is the defense, it is the job of a Tampa criminal defense attorney to prove that the defendant acted in self-defense and within the criteria of the SYG law. It is the job of a jury to determine whether or not the defense is correct and the homicide was or was not justifiable under the law.

Robin Fuson
By Robin Fuson