TBO.com: Tampa Bay Online, The Tampa Tribune and The Tampa Times - breaking news and weather.
Sunday, Oct 26, 2014
Editorials

Lawmakers need to fix 'stand your ground' law

Published:

The focus of those outraged by the George Zimmerman trial has now shifted squarely onto "stand your ground" laws in Florida and the two dozen other states with similar statutes.

Some Florida lawmakers are joining protesters in demanding Gov. Rick Scott call a special legislative session to consider repeal of the controversial law.

Scott is right to refuse those demands. Summoning lawmakers back to Tallahassee while so many voices are raised in anger would serve only to further entrench both sides, drowning out any thoughtful debate.

But Scott and Republican lawmakers who stand behind the law should be open to making changes to "stand your ground" during the regular legislative session next spring - changes that address its flaws while ensuring innocent people are allowed to defend themselves.

That can only happen if the debate moves beyond the racially charged Zimmerman trial - and the murky circumstances surrounding the final moments of Trayvon Martin's life. Instead, the debate needs to focus on cases that more clearly illustrate how the law handcuffs law enforcement.

Rather than dismiss law enforcement's concerns, as happened during previous legislative sessions, lawmakers need to listen to police and prosecutors who must deal with the immunity the law affords to people who use deadly force to extricate themselves from situations they created.

Whether those people wrongly took a life should be left to the discretion of prosecutors, and ultimately to a judge and jury.

"We elect state attorneys, and they have to make these decisions," Hillsborough County Sheriff David Gee says. "Historically, they have done a good job."

Gee is familiar with cases in Hillsborough where the original aggressor was protected by "stand your ground." Cases like those need a review by investigators and prosecutors unencumbered by a state law that grants broad immunity.

"Every case is different," Gee says.

"Stand you ground" as a concept is laudable. People in fear of their lives have a right to protect themselves with deadly force, whether in their homes or on the street. But the "stand your ground" law Florida lawmakers passed in 2005 went too far. Under the law, people have no legal obligation to retreat, even when they are the instigators and when they have the means to avoid the danger.

In denying calls for a special session, Scott likes to invoke the findings of a task force he empaneled after the Zimmerman shooting but before the verdict. Its findings offered modest changes to the law, such as tweaks that will govern the conduct of neighborhood watch volunteers such as Zimmerman or the ability of police to detain someone who invokes "stand your ground" during an investigation.

Those fixes don't address the fundamental problem with a law that protects someone who chooses to start a fight and then ends it with deadly force rather than retreat.

To what degree "stand your ground" factored into the Zimmerman verdict is debatable. What is clear is that dozens of other "self-defense" cases have revealed flaws in a law meant to protect innocent people from great bodily harm or death.

As it now stands, the law is open to abuse by those undeserving of its protections. And that needs to change.

Subscribe to The Tampa Tribune

Comments