for News Service of Florida
The panel charged by Gov. Rick Scott with reviewing the state's 'stand your ground' self-defense law did not recommend any major changes to the statute, although it did make suggestions for tweaks by the Legislature in the upcoming session. The basic premise of the law isn't challenged in the final report released Friday. Scott's Task Force on Citizen Safety and Protection included lawmakers, prosecutors, defense attorneys, representatives of minority communities and law enforcement.
Scott appointed the panel amid outrage over last year's shooting death of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teen who was killed by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman in Sanford. Zimmerman wasn't arrested for months, until after national protests.
Senate Democratic Leader Chris Smith, who asked to be on the task force but wasn't appointed, said he'd expected this result.
"When you put a task force together of people who wrote the bill and full of people who support 'stand your ground,' I knew that the task force wouldn't come up with anything earth-shattering," he said.
The law basically allows those who feel their life is in danger in public to meet the threat with deadly force. If they claim that was the situation, they can go to a hearing before a judge and get a ruling on that issue without ever going to trial.
The task force issued a draft report in December that urged lawmakers to look more carefully at a few areas of the law that might be vague.
Smith, who convened his own task force after being left off Scott's, has maintained that the law gives cover to those who attack others for revenge or as part of a crime.
"Anyone who looks at all of the data and all of the misuses of 'stand your ground' – from Miami, where people are chasing someone down the street and stabbing them to death, to Tampa, where people are getting shot on playgrounds, all the way to Tallahassee, where gangs are using 'stand your ground' as they shoot up the streets – anyone who looked at that data realistically would have come out with stronger recommendations, as my task force did," Smith said.
Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, the original sponsor of the bill and a member of the task force, said the statewide hearings and public debate helped to clarify that the law doesn't cover those who assault someone they have pursued.
"The greatest benefit of the task force was a thorough review of what our self-defense law is and is not. I think it has brought understanding," Baxley said. "I think moving forward, we'll all see ways to make clearer application."
The panel wants lawmakers to look more carefully at the part of the law that says the presumption of justifiable self-defense doesn't apply when the person who uses defensive force is engaged in "unlawful activity." Also at issue: how law enforcement officers should proceed in situations in which shooters claim to have stood their ground in self-defense.
Baxley said people will always try to claim that 'stand your ground' covers their cases.
"And there will always be close calls near the foul line no matter where you put that line," he said. "But to automatically arrest people and detain them and they have to go on defense and prove their innocence is not consistent with our standard of legal care, which says you are innocent until proven guilty of something."
Smith said Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs and a co-sponsor of the law who also sat on the task force, will file a bill to make minor changes in the upcoming session.