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Stand Your Ground Self Defense Law in Florida
Back in the eighties, years before Florida’s Stand Your Ground law was enacted, a handful of states had existing laws that offered immunity from prosecution to those who used deadly force against home intruders.
In 2005—with the backing of the National Rifle Association—Florida followed suit and passed its notorious Stand Your Ground law. The law immediately drew controversy and criticism in the media. Critics of the law argued it emboldened vigilantes and encouraged people to “shoot first, ask questions later.” On the other hand, supporters lauded it as a necessary and much needed expansion of the right to use deadly force in self-defense situations.
Despite the initial controversy of the Stand Your Ground law in Florida, it wasn’t until 2012, with the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin by neighborhood watch captain George Zimmerman, that the controversial law traversed the national spotlight and became a subject of recurring national headlines. Ironically, in the end, the Trayvon Martin case didn’t involve the Stand Your Ground law. At trial, George Zimmerman instead asserted traditional self-defense.
Self-Defense Prior to Stand Your Ground Law in Florida
Contrary to popular belief, the enactment of Stand Your Ground Law in Florida did not actually create a new (or affirmative) defense, regarding the use of deadly force. Prior to Stand Your Ground, the common law principles of traditional self-defense controlled. These principles of self-defense are historically rooted in the English common-law doctrine, dating back to at least the seventeenth century. These principles have been the law in Florida for well over a century. Lovett v. State, 30 Fla. 142, 163-64 (Fla. 1892).
a. The Duty to Retreat
Under the common law (prior to Stand Your Ground Law in Florida) a person was entitled to use non-deadly force to defend against the imminent use of unlawful non-deadly force. And deadly force could be used to defend against the imminent use of deadly force or great bodily harm—or the commission of a forcible felony. In contrast to Stand Your Ground law, the common law imposed a duty to retreat. This meant that even if you felt threatened, you were required to retreat to a place of safety. The use of deadly force was therefore only legally permissible if retreat was not possible.
Stand Your Ground law in Florida is an extremely powerful tool that has the potential to facilitate the dismissal of your charges before trial.
b. The Castle Doctrine
Florida law did recognize one major exception to this duty to retreat called the “Castle Doctrine.” The Castle Doctrine, in theory, means that every man is the king of his castle, and every woman the queen of hers. It follows then, that one should not be required to retreat when attacked or threatened in their home or residence.
Accordingly, under the Castle Doctrine, if you were in your home, there was no duty to retreat. But remember, even though the Castle Doctrine removed the retreat requirement, the homeowner (or lawful occupant) was still required to show that he or she reasonably believed that force was necessary to prevent death or serious bodily harm.
The Evolution of Stand Your Ground Laws in America
Florida’s Stand Your Ground law is not a new development in American jurisprudence. In the mid-to-late nineteenth century, American courts began narrowing and restricting the duty to retreat regarding self-defense. Notably, the Ohio Supreme Court in 1876, ruled the following: at “the criminal law will not permit the taking of human life to repel a mere trespass, . . . but a true man, who is without fault, is not obliged to fly from an assailant, who, by violence or surprise, maliciously seeks to take his life or do him enormous bodily harm.” Erwin v. State, 29 Ohio St. 186, 199 (1876). About a year after Erwin, the Supreme Court of Indiana also embraced the “no retreat” approach in Runyan v. State, 57 Ind. 80 (1877). In Runyan, the court held the following:
When a person, being without fault and in a place where he has a right to be, is violently assaulted, he may, without retreating, repel force by force, and if, in reasonable exercise of his right of self-defense, his assailant is killed, he is justifiable.
Id. In the years following, other state courts began to follow suit and endorse the “no retreat” approach, and at the close of the 19th century the United States Supreme Court joined the national conversation and embraced the “no retreat” approach in Beard v. United States, 158 U.S. 550 (1895). About 26 years later, in Brown v. United States, 256 U.S. 335 (1921), Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes rejected the retreat rule famously writing for the court, “Detached reflection cannot be demanded in the presence of an uplifted knife.”
Current Florida “Stand Your Ground” Law
Today’s laws regarding Stand Your Ground are codified in Florida Statutes, sections 776.012, and 776.013. As we discussed, Stand Your Ground law does not replace traditional self-defense under the common-law, rather it expands the scope of common law self-defense. It does this in the following three ways:
- Removes the “duty to retreat” requirement, and essentially applies the Castle Doctrine to any place where a person is legally allowed to be.
- Presumes legal justification for the use of deadly force involving unlawful entries into ‘dwellings,’ residences, or vehicles.
- It gives potential immunity to defendants when their use of force is within the protections outlined by the statute.
a. No Duty to Retreat
First, the most obvious change from the common law doctrine of self-defense, is the absence of the “duty to retreat” requirement. Under Florida Statutes section 776.012, someone can lawfully defend themself using deadly force without the duty to retreat, regardless of where that person is when faced with the threat/attack. The only requirement is that the individual must be in a place where he/she is lawfully entitled to be when the threat/attack occurs. This basically expands the Castle Doctrine to any place were a person has a right to be.
b. Statutory Presumptions Favoring Self-Defense
Today’s Stand Your Ground law further protects those who assert self-defense and extends the permissible use of force with regard to dwellings, residences, and occupied vehicles. It does this by creating two conclusive presumptions, that are codified in Florida Statute 776.013.
- The defendant had a reasonable fear that deadly force was necessary; and
- The intruder had the intention to commit an unlawful act which involved violence or force
“Subsections (1), (2), (4), and (5) of section 776.013 expand the “castle” to include a dwelling, residence, or occupied vehicle. These subsections all work together to provide for presumptions that make it easier for a person in the “castle” to establish the justifiable use of deadly force.” Little v. State, 111 So. 3d 214 (Fla. 2d DCA 2013).
These presumptions dramatically change the nature of a self-defense case. This means, that a person’s belief that it was necessary to use force—or deadly force—against an attack, will be presumed reasonable. This is an immensely powerful legal tool for a defendant asserting self-defense because it puts the burden on the prosecution to overcome the presumption with evidence proving that the defendant’s fear of imminent death or great bodily harm was unreasonable.
c. Immunity From Prosecution
Finally, prosecutorial immunity is another significant change from the common law. The Stand Your Ground law gives you potential immunity from prosecution, if you can show that your actions fall within the statutory provisions of the law. Under the common law of self-defense, there was no such immunity. Instead, the issue of whether you acted in self-defense was a factual issue to be decided by a jury. Stand Your Ground law, therefore takes this decision out of the jury’s hands, and allows a defendant to assert, prior to trial, that his actions fall within the statutory criteria. If the defendant can successfully establish this, then the state is barred from further prosecuting the matter. That means no trial. And no charges.
Asserting Prosecutorial Immunity Prior to Trial
When the law was first passed in 2005, there was no mention of the procedural mechanism by which prosecutorial immunity could be determined. Florida appellate courts struggled with this issue until 2015 when the Florida Supreme Court put the issue to rest in Dennis v. State, 51 So.3d 456 (Fla. 2010). Dennis held that the Defendant may raise the issue of statutory immunity prior to trial at an evidentiary hearing, and the burden would rest with the defendant to show by a preponderance of the evidence that he was entitled to immunity. Id. This ruling was problematic from a legal standpoint because it shifted the burden to the defendant, requiring him to prove his innocence; a concept that ran afoul of traditional criminal legal principles.
In 2017, the Florida Legislature, amended the Stand Your Ground statute and changed both the burden of proof and the standard of proof in these pre-trial immunity proceedings. The law today requires the defendant need only make a showing of a prima facie case of self-defense immunity, at which point the burden shifts to the state to prove by clear and convincing evidence, that the defendant is not entitled to immunity. Love v. State, 247 So. 3d 609 (Fla. 3rd DCA 2018).
The Florida Stand Your Ground Law Pre-Trial Hearing
Florida Statutes subsection (1) of 776.032 gives “defendants a substantive right to assert immunity from prosecution and to avoid being subjected to trial.” Dennis v. State, 51 So.3d 456, 462 (Fla. 2010). When immunity under this law is properly raised by a defendant, the trial court must decide the matter by confronting and weighing only factual disputes. The trial court may not deny a motion simply because factual disputes exist. Peterson v. State, 983 So. 2d 27, 29 (Fla. 1st DCA 2008).
The potential to have your case dismissed prior to trial, is what makes Florida’s Stand Your Ground law such a powerful tool for criminal defense lawyers. The Stand Your Ground hearing is an evidentiary hearing, where the judge must consider and weigh factual issues presented by witness testimony and other evidence. Like a trial, but without a jury. At this hearing, the prosecution would be required to prove by clear and convincing evidence, that the use of force was not justified. The clear and convincing evidence standard is higher than the “preponderance of the evidence” standard but lower than the “proof beyond a reasonable doubt” standard.
A skilled attorney can represent you at this hearing and persuasively present your case to the court. At the conclusion of the hearing, if the judge decides that the prosecution has not met its burden, your case would be dismissed.
Exceptions to Florida’s Stand Your Ground
Regarding Stand Your Ground in residences or dwellings, Florida Statute 776.013, lists four situations in which the presumption of reasonableness will not apply.
- If the person against who the defensive force was used, has a right to be on the premises, or was a lawful resident
- The person unlawfully entering the residence is attempting to remove their child, grandchild, or someone whom they have lawful custody of
- The person using defensive force is engaging in criminal activity or using the residence or dwelling to further criminal activity
- The person unlawfully entering the residence or dwelling is a law enforcement officer, conducting official duties, and identified themselves
The potential to have your case dismissed prior to trial, is what makes Florida’s Stand Your Ground law such a powerful tool for criminal defense lawyers.
Stand Your Ground Final Thoughts
Florida’s Stand Your Ground law is complex and frequently misunderstood by the public—and even some in the legal community. In summation, the law abolished the common law duty to retreat, and added statutory presumptions which made it easier for a person to justify the use of self-defense as reasonable. Finally, the law allowed for immunity from prosecution if the statutory criteria were met.
Stand Your Ground law is an extremely powerful tool that has the potential to facilitate the dismissal of your charges, before trial. If you have been charged with a crime, and are asserting self-defense, you need to speak with an experienced attorney that is knowledgeable about Florida’s Stand Your Ground laws. If you have any questions, or would like to schedule a consultation, call the Law Office of William B. Wynne today, at 813-532-5057.