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Florida Defendant Argues For Stand Your Ground Protection After Shootout With Police Officers

In Florida, the Stand Your Ground law received a lot of attention over the years, particularly in relation to the Trayvon Martin case. The Florida Stand Your Ground law is not a particularly radical law. It is essentially a self defense law that allows a person to use reasonable force, including deadly force, in response to an imminent threat of similar harm.  In other words, if a person reasonably believes someone is about to injure or kill him/her, or another person, that person can use a similar level of force to prevent that from happening. There may be issues regarding whether the other person’s threat was truly imminent and whether the suspect used a commensurate level of force, but it is generally a self defense law. What makes the Florida Stand Your Ground law somewhat exceptional is the procedural aspect of it. Rather than having to assert the Stand Your Ground defense at a trial and hope the jury sides with the defendant, which is always questionable, a defendant can file a motion with the judge that requires a hearing prior to the trial. Once the defendant makes an initial case of self defense, state has the burden of proving the defendant did not have a valid basis to use force or that the Stand Your Ground law does not apply for legal reasons, and if the state fails to do so, the judge should rule in the defendant’s favor and the case is over. A jury would never hear the case. This is an immunity rather than a defense in that if the defendant’s motion is successful, the defendant is immune from further prosecution for the offense.

In a recent case near Jacksonville, Florida, an older defendant lived at home with his adult niece. He was a security guard with no prior criminal record. He had a concealed carry permit and firearms training. One evening, someone knocked on his door, his niece answered, and some guy pulled her out of the house. The niece resisted and called for the defendant to help her. Two other men were there and helped the first man pull the niece away. The defendant grabbed his guy and ran outside. He fired a warning shot into the air. The three men shot back, and a gunfight ensued. The defendant and his niece were hit along with one of the other men.

It turns out, these three men were police officers, although they apparently never announced that fact to the niece or defendant. They went to the house in an undercover capacity to investigate the niece’s alleged prostitution offenses. They arrived in plain clothes and an unmarked vehicle and posed as customers seeking a prostitute. After the incident, the defendant was arrested and charged with three counts of attempted murder of a law enforcement officer.

This case has a lot of Stand Your Ground issues. First, the police conduct was about as irresponsible as it gets. Even worse, the police created an extremely dangerous situation and got one of themselves shot over something as ridiculous as prostitution, which should not be illegal to begin with. We are continually amazed out how police risk their own lives and the lives of others over stupid things laws that criminalize marijuana and prostitution, at the expense of investigating actual crimes.

In any case, the criminal defense lawyer filed a Stand Your Ground motion to request the judge find that the defendant was immune from prosecution for attempted murder. The Florida Stand Your Ground law says a person can use force that may cause great bodily harm or death if that person is in reasonable fear of great bodily harm or death to him/herself or another. The law also has a provision where such defensive force can be used by a person if the other person was in the process of unlawfully and forcibly entering his/her home. If a person is unlawfully and forcibly entering another’s home, the law presumes that entry is for the purpose of committing an unlawful act involving force or violence.

So, the Florida Stand Your Ground law clearly protects people who have reason to believe they or someone else is about to be, or actually is, the victim of forcible violence. Additionally, the law protects people when someone is about to enter, or actually is entering, their home forcibly and without permission.  This case clearly would seem to fall within the Florida Stand Your Ground protections which would provide immunity from prosecution for the defendant.

However, there were two remaining issues that caused the trial court to rule against the defendant. First, the Florida Stand Your Ground law cannot be used by people against police officers.  Second, the law cannot be used by people who are engaged in criminal activity themselves or are using their homes to further criminal activity. In this case, the state argued that the defendant could not use the Stand Your Ground law because the alleged victims were police officers. Also, the state argued the defendant could not use the Stand Your Ground law because the defendant was using his home as a venue for prostitution with his niece.

The appellate court did not agree. While those statements of law are correct, once the defendant made a case of self defense, which he clearly did, the state had the burden of proving by clear and convincing evidence that the Stand Your Ground law did not apply to the defendant. In other words, the state had to prove that the defendant knew that the alleged victims were police officers. Or, the state had to prove that the house was being used to further prostitution and the defendant knew it. The appellate court found that the trial court did not make, and could not have made, such findings based on the limited and flawed Stand Your Ground hearing that was conducted.

The appellate court was clearly bothered by the fact that this case was prosecuted and the charges were so severe. The court admonished the trial court to conduct an appropriate hearing considering the legal requirements of the law. Hopefully, the charges will either be dropped or the trial court will actually competently conduct an appropriate hearing which will result in immunity for the defendant. Also, it is scary to think police officers would be so incompetent and use such poor judgement as to create such a dangerous situation over prostitution, while crimes go uninvestigated.