The Sunshine State Looks to Bolster Lethal Self-Defense Claims

USA: “Stand your Ground” from Flickr via Wylio

Trayvon Martin’s mother Sybrina Fulton at a 2014 Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. © 2014 Comisión Interamericana de Derechos Humanos, Flickr | CC-BY | via Wylio

The infamous 2013 trial of State of Florida v. George Zimmerman drew national attention to the issues of self-defense and racial relations.

One of the main questions posed to the jury was whether or not Florida’s self-defense laws applied to George Zimmerman, a gated community’s watchman, who shot an unarmed African-American, Trayvon Martin.

Since the trial, the concept of “Stand Your Ground” has received widespread attention in the state’s courts and legislature.

Currently, Florida law says a person can use “Stand Your Ground” as a defense if the person has “reasonable fear of imminent peril of death or great bodily harm to himself or herself when using or threatening to use defensive force” that would cause death or harm to another individual.

The Florida Legislature is working to strengthen self-defense claims that come with “Stand Your Ground” laws.

On March 15, SB 128 was passed by the Senate by a margin of 23-15.

The new legislation says “that the state has the burden of proving that a defendant is not immune from prosecution under certain circumstances.”

When the bill reached the House, they amended it to change the prosecution’s burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt, to clear and convincing evidence in proving how “Stand Your Ground” laws are inapplicable when the defendant claims self-defense.

If this bill passes both chambers, Florida will become the first state to pose a greater burden on the prosecution in “Stand Your Ground” claims.

Instead of the defense presenting evidence to show the defendant was acting with “fear of great bodily harm or death” when using the force, the prosecution will now have the burden of proof in proving there was no self-defense.

In other words, defendants will no longer have to present evidence to prove self-defense.

On the other hand, prosecutors have attempted to fight the introduced bill because, during immunity hearings, the defendant is admitting to using force and violating the law.

In addition to the defendant admitting to the use of force, this measure will require prosecutors to put on a non-jury mini-trial to prove their new burden with witness testimony before a defense counsel.  

When putting on a non-jury mini-trial, the prosecution essentially has to present their whole case to the judge and defense before a real trial takes place because the prosecution has to prove why the claims of self-defense don’t apply.

This serves as a concern for the state because defendants will no longer be required to offer evidence and the defense will have already seen the prosecution’s case before going to a trial as well as throughout the duration of the criminal proceeding.

With current self-defense laws in Florida, the defendant must prove he or she acted in self-defense by a preponderance of the evidence instead of beyond a reasonable doubt.

Since the preponderance of the evidence is a lower standard than beyond a reasonable doubt, the burden is already low for the defendant and this bill intends to eradicate that burden by shifting it to the prosecution.

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