The Stand Your Ground self-defense law in Florida has seen its share of legislative battles; now, it’s facing a legal test.
In June, Gov. Rick Scott signed a bill that declared the state, and not the defense, has the burden of proof in pre-trial hearings to decide if the stand your ground defense is appropriate at trial.
But on July 3, Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Milton Hirsch ruled in a court order that the legislature overstepped its constitutional authority to pass the bill. Hirsch made the ruling in a case involving Liletha Rutherford, a Florida woman charged with aggravated assault with a firearm and grand theft.
David Katz, an independent program lawyer for U.S. Law Shield of Florida, explained that Rutherford sought the Stand Your Ground immunity. But, Katz added, Hirsch asserted in his 14-page order that the state’s constitution empowers the Legislature to make “substantive” laws such as the laws against criminal activity and their corresponding punishments.
Katz said the judge believes the constitution says the rules for court procedures are “procedural” and it’s up to the Florida Supreme Court to decide those, not the Legislature.
The judge wrote, “Because questions of burden of proof are procedural rather than substantive, however, I necessarily find the demised legislative changes to be unconstitutional.”
Katz said the judge’s order and the law itself face more battles in the state’s appellate courts and the Florida Supreme Court.
Katz also told us that “it is important to realize that Judge Hirsch’s ruling only has effect in his courtroom. Although some Judges may look at is as persuasive, it is not binding in any Courtroom but Hirsch’s. In effect, other Judges in the same courthouse have disagreed with Hirsch’s ruling and given the new law full effect in their courtroom.”
A spokesman for the governor said “the office is studying Hirsch’s ruling,” Further, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Pam Bondi said that her “office is getting ready to appeal the order.”
The Stand Your Ground law in Florida states that a person is not obliged to retreat in the face of danger and can use deadly force as self-defense. It became law in 2005; seven years later, George Zimmerman used the defense to get an acquittal in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin.
Critics say the law could cause more violence with a “shoot first” way of thinking among Floridians who choose to arm themselves for self-defense.
But prosecutors especially didn’t like the pre-trial burden of proof placed on them because they had to show clear and convincing evidence that someone did not act in self-defense. They said the rule essentially forces them to try a case twice: once at the self-defense hearing, and again at the actual trial.
Supporters praised the bill’s signing. They said that the burden of proof is always on the state in criminal proceedings, and a pre-trail hearing should be no different.
“Today’s Miami trial court ruling attacks the Legislature’s role in defining and protecting our individual rights,” State Sen. Rob Bradley, a sponsor of the bill, wrote on Twitter.
A sponsor of the House version, State Rep. Jason Brodeur added, “So judges should make laws? This whole time, I have been so confused…what do I do as a legislator again?”
—By Bill Miller, U.S. and Texas LawShield® blog contributor