An amended version of Florida’s controversial ‘stand your ground’ law, which shifts the burden of proof from the defendant to the prosecutor in self-defense cases, has been ruled unconstitutional by a state judge.
In a 14-page ruling Monday, Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Milton Hirsch ruled that the changes lawmakers made to the original self-defense law were “procedural,” meaning, only the state Supreme Court has the authority to craft alterations under the state’s constitution.
“The statutory alterations in the burden and standard of proof in ‘stand your ground’ cases are, as set for hereinabove, unconstitutional,” Hirsch wrote. “As a matter of constitutional separation of powers, that procedure cannot be legislatively modified.”
Last month, Florida Governor Rick Scott (R) signed the amended legislation, which was backed by the National Rifle Association (NRA).
The state first passed the law in 2005, giving individuals the right to “shoot first” if they believed their lives were in danger. The law eliminated the need for individuals to retreat before using deadly force in self-defense.
“A person is justified in the use of deadly force and does not have a duty to retreat if: He or she reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself,” the original Florida law reads.
Under the original bill, defendants were required to prove that they were acting in self-defense during a pretrial immunity hearing. However, the amended legislation shifted the burden of proof from the defendant to the prosecutor, who was required to show “clear and convincing evidence” that the defendant did not use deadly force as an act of self-defense.
State Senator Gary Farmer (D-Broward County) said the bill had put prosecutors “in the position of having to prove a negative.”
“That’s a very difficult proposition regardless of the issue,” Farmer said, according to the Miami Herald. “When you add to that, in order to prove that negative, a prosecutor needs witnesses, this bill has unintended consequences of incentivizing shoot-to-kill. Dead men tell no tales.”
As we prepare to celebrate liberty good reminder of importance of courts to protect us from legislative overreach.
— Senator Gary Farmer (@FarmerForFLSen) July 3, 2017
Since the bill would require prosecutors to disprove the defendant’s self-defense claims during the pretrial phase, prosecutors argued they would have to try each case twice, proving the defendant’s guilt during the pretrial phase as well as during the trial.
Prosecutors argued the changes would make it easier for defendants to claim they acted out of self-defense, potentially leading to more cases being thrown out of court.
However, State Senator Rob Bradley (R-Fleming Island) refuted those arguments, saying, “if a prosecutor doesn’t have the evidence to prevail at this immunity hearing… the prosecutor does not have sufficient evidence to win at trial.”
“Innocent people will not go free as a result of this bill; this bill isn’t about creating loopholes,” said Bradley, according to the Miami Herald.
Hirsch’s ruling stem from two separate cases, one against Liletha Rutherford, who was charged with aggravated assault after pulling a gun on a couple during an argument, and another against Omar Rodriguez, who was charged with fatally shooting a man after an argument over cleaning up dog feces.
Hirsch’s ruling means Rutherford and Rodriguez will have to prove they were acting in self-defense in order to receive immunity from criminal prosecution.
The so-called ‘stand your ground’ law sparked national controversy and outrage in 2012 when Florida resident George Zimmerman was acquitted after fatally shooting unarmed teenager, Trayvon Martin. Zimmerman’s attorney argued his client was justified to use deadly force since he believed his life was in immediate danger.