A National Rifle Association-backed measure that could have made it easier legally for people to claim self-defense in shooting incidents failed to get through its first House committee on Tuesday.
A lobbyist for the 2nd Amendment group said after the meeting that the proposal will be back, though it is likely dead for the upcoming 2016 legislative session.
House Criminal Justice Chairman Carlos Trujillo joined four Democrats and Keystone Heights Republican Charles Van Zant in opposing the measure (HB 169), which proposed to shift the burden of proof to the state in cases involving Florida’s “stand your ground” law.
The controversial law says people can use deadly force and do not have a duty to retreat if they think it is necessary to prevent death or great bodily harm.
Trujillo, a Miami Republican and former prosecutor, said the “stand your ground” law works without the proposed change.
“If you’re looking at a scenario in which it’s one individual (against) one individual and one of them happens to be dead, how’s the state going to disprove a negative without having the ability to call you to testify?” Trujillo said.
“I’m sympathetic for the individuals who find themselves in bad situations, with bad facts and bad judges,” Trujillo continued. “But I’m also more sympathetic to women of domestic violence, young members of my community who are oftentimes killed, (and) individuals try to use a good law that was passed with noble purposes for very ignoble attempts.”
NRA lobbyist Marion Hammer said upon leaving the committee meeting that while the bill is dead for the 2016 session, the group will continue to push for the measure.
“It will be back until it passes, period,” Hammer said. “In the meantime, the people can pay attention and elect people who are more sympathetic to them than prosecutors.”
Asked if the gun rights group would target Trujillo in the future, Hammer said she is one to “never make predictions.”
A Senate version of the bill (SB 344) has cleared one committee and is scheduled to go before the Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Subcommittee on Wednesday.
House sponsor Dennis Baxley, an Ocala Republican and one of the key architects of the “stand your ground” law, decided to push forward with a vote after Trujillo asked if he’d prefer to delay it.
“You’re talking about a basic tenet of American justice,” Baxley said during his closing comments before the panel. “This is the difference between being here and in Russia: You’re innocent until proven guilty and it is always the burden of the state. We would rather allow a guilty person go free than to convict an innocent one. Particularly somebody who was defending themselves and others from harm. That’s the kind of society we need.”
The bill was crafted after the Florida Supreme Court ruled that people who use the “stand your ground” defense have the burden of showing they should be shielded from prosecution. In such cases, pre-trial evidentiary hearings are held to determine whether defendants are immune from prosecution under the law. The bill called for placing the burden of proof on prosecutors in the evidentiary hearings.
Debra Harrison Rumberger, a lobbyist for the League of Women Voters of Florida, said the bill, combined with proposed measures to expand the rights of concealed-weapon permit holders to carry guns on state university and colleges campuses and to openly carry handguns, wouldn’t make Florida safer.
“This bill, as with open-carry and campus-carry, constitutes an attack on law enforcement and the legal process, while placing our citizenry in greater danger,” she said.
But Stacy Scott, the public defender for the 8th Judicial Circuit which includes Alachua, Baker, Bradford, Gilchrist, Levy and Union counties, said the burden of proof should be on the state attorney.
“They hold all the cards and wield all the power,” Scott said. “In order for that citizen to even have an immunity hearing … it’s very likely that they’ve already had to reject a plea offer and face very stiff penalties, years and decades in prison, in order to assert their right that they were right because they acted in self defense.”