Is a measure aiming to tweak Florida’s Stand Your Ground law dead this year? While some believe that effort is over, others—including the law’s main author—don’t seem to think so.
Last month, a proposal aimed at tweaking the controversial law began to move again, when it passed the Senate Criminal Justice Committee—the bill’s second stop.
But, later, the Senate Rules Committee did what’s called a re-referral of the bill, which landed the measure all the way back to its very first panel. Sen. John Thrasher (R-St. Augustine) is the Senate Rules chair.
“It happens because the character of a bill can be changed from its original reference. You know, so, it needs to be re-reviewed again by that original committee or another committee,” said Thrasher.
“It rarely happens—it’s happened a couple of times this year—but, it’s usually a signal,” said Senate Democratic Leader Chris Smith, one of the sponsors of the so-called tweak of Stand Your Ground.
Done with the blessing of the Senate President, Smith says the re-referral usually means it’s a signal from Senate leadership that there’s some resistance to moving such a bill forward.
Still, in his mind, does he feel it’s a dead issue?
“It’s not a dead issue. It’s slowed down a little bit, but it’s not dead. We’ve got a couple of weeks to still find vehicles to push it through,” added Smith.
And, those same thoughts were echoed by Sen. David Simmons (R-Altamonte Springs). He’s the other Senate sponsor of the tweak bill as well as the main author of the 2005 Stand Your Ground law.
“It’s amazing how things can get a second life in the legislature. So, it’s really a question of what we do, and whether or not some of the language that I have can be attached onto another bill. And, so I’m looking for the opportunity to attach it to another bill,” said Simmons.
But, if that plan doesn’t work, does Simmons think he’ll take up the fight again next year?
“I am not worried so much about next year. I’m worried about getting it done this year," Simmons added.
Still, there’re many different stakeholders in the process who have both backed and opposed different parts of the bill. And, it’s unclear which parts of the measure Smith and Simmons want to tack onto other bills.
Provisions include further defining what an aggressor is, making sure law enforcement fully investigate Stand Your Ground claims, and putting guidelines in place for neighborhood watch programs. Those changes were inspired by the acquittal of neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman, who claimed self-defense, after fatally shooting unarmed teen Trayvon Martin.
But, that latter provision that requires local law enforcement to issue certain guidelines for neighborhood watch programs still troubles the Florida Sheriff’s Association.
“My understanding is that some of the concerns that we had raised are still in the language that’s there. So, there may need to be some additional dialogue on some aspects as to how this bill would change the structure of the crime watch programs that we’ve had in place for many years and have worked very well,” said the group's Executive Director Steve Casey.
Another provision allows an innocent bystander or their family to sue if they get caught in the crossfire of someone else defending themselves. And, there’s a recently tacked on NRA-backed amendment that now places the burden of proof on prosecutors to prove a person who claimed Stand Your Ground is not justified in making the self-defense claim, before the case goes to a jury. Currently, that burden of proof is on the defendant.
But, at least one Republican lawmaker as well as some State Attorneys continue to be wary about that change, including Tallahassee State Attorney Willie Meggs.
“This was a bad law from its inception, and that tweak to it made it worse. And, so, I don’t know how you can make a bill any worse, but they’re [the legislature] working on it,” said Meggs.
And, he says he wouldn’t mind if that amendment or the bill, for that matter, died this year.
“Well, I hope it dies somewhere. And, if it could drag along the main bill in its death, that would be a good thing for the citizens of Florida,” Meggs added.
The National Rifle Association’s Marion Hammer could not be reached for comment. But, during the bill’s last committee stop, she argued that, that particular provision is needed. She says the law is not about “what’s convenient for the courts, prosecutors, or law enforcement,” and more about making sure innocent people are not treated like criminals by the state’s judicial system.
“The very idea that you could be minding your own business and have to fight back and then have a prosecutor want to punish you for fighting back, and have a court require you to prove that you are innocent—rather than assume you’re innocent until proven guilty, which is the basis of our judicial system—is wrong,” said Hammer.
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