In a case that started with a tourist brandishing a gun during a traffic dispute, the Florida Supreme Court on Thursday said people who use the state's controversial "stand your ground" legal defense have the burden of proving they should be shielded from prosecution.
The 5-2 ruling dealt with a key part of the way the state has carried out the "stand your ground" law, which in part provides immunity to people who use justifiable force in self-defense.
In "stand your ground" cases, pre-trial evidentiary hearings are held to determine whether defendants are immune from prosecution because of the law. The Supreme Court ruling Thursday centered on who should have the burden of proof during those hearings --- defendants or prosecutors.
Justices sided with lower courts that have required defendants to prove that they should be protected from prosecution by the self-defense law. The majority opinion, written by Justice Barbara Pariente, said immunity in the "stand your ground" law "is not a blanket immunity, but rather, requires the establishment that the use of force was legally justified."
"We conclude that placing the burden of proof on the defendant to establish entitlement to Stand Your Ground immunity by a preponderance of the evidence at the pretrial evidentiary hearing, rather than on the state to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant's use of force was not justified, is consistent with this court's precedent and gives effect to the legislative intent,'' said the majority opinion, which was joined by Chief Justice Jorge Labarga and justices Peggy Quince and James E.C. Perry.
Justice R. Fred Lewis concurred in the outcome, though he did not sign on to the majority opinion.
In a dissenting opinion, Justice Charles Canady wrote that the majority ruling "substantially curtails the benefit of the immunity from trial conferred by the Legislature under the Stand Your Ground law."
"The factual question raised by the assertion of Stand Your Ground immunity in a pretrial evidentiary hearing is the same as the factual question raised by a Stand Your Ground defense presented at trial: whether the evidence establishes beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant's conduct was not justified under the governing statutory standard,'' Canady wrote in the dissent, which was joined by Justice Ricky Polston.
The ruling came in a case that started in 2011 with a dispute on Irlo Bronson Memorial Highway in Osceola County. Jared Bretherick, a tourist from Indiana, was a backseat passenger in a vehicle driven by his father that was almost side-swiped by a truck, according to a summary in the Supreme Court opinion.
The driver of the truck, identified in court documents as Derek Dunning, then abruptly stopped in front of the Bretherick vehicle. Dunning, who was unarmed, got out of his truck and approached the vehicle. Bretherick's father held up a holstered gun, which led Dunning to return to his truck.
Bretherick subsequently got out of the vehicle and approached the truck while pointing the handgun at Dunning, the court opinion said. He later went back to the family's vehicle and continued pointing the gun at Dunning. Police arrived after receiving 911 calls, and Bretherick was charged with aggravated assault with a firearm.
After an evidentiary hearing, a circuit judge ruled that Bretherick was not entitled to immunity from prosecution under the "stand your ground" law. The judge pointed to Dunning's retreat to his truck after Bretherick's father showed the handgun, ruling that the "threat was no longer imminent, and in fact, the possible volatile situation had been diffused. The defendant's subjective fear was no longer reasonable."
The National Rifle Association and another gun-rights group, Florida Carry Inc. filed briefs in the Supreme Court supporting Bretherick. But the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association backed the state's position on the burden-of-proof issue.