A number of recent events (and some changes in the law) have left a lot of us with more questions than ever about the law of self defense and Florida’s so-called “Stand Your Ground” law. There is a lot of confusion about this, so I’m going to attempt to go over the basics here by way of this PSA-type article. Read on if you’d like to get a sense of the lay of the land in every-day language with some examples of what scenarios were ruled legitimate self-defense and what weren’t.
The phrase “stand your ground” comes from a provision in Florida Statutes section 776.012(2), which reads as follows:
A person is justified in using or threatening to use deadly force if he or she reasonably believes that using or threatening to use such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the imminent commission of a forcible felony. A person who uses or threatens to use deadly force in accordance with this subsection does not have a duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground if the person using or threatening to use the deadly force is not engaged in a criminal activity and is in a place where he or she has a right to be.
This law was originally passed in 2005. Before that, people who were confronted with a violent situation in a public place generally had a duty to retreat before being able to lawfully use deadly force. In other words, for a shooting in public to be a legitimate self-defense shooting, the shooter might be subject to prosecution if they couldn’t show that they made a good faith effort to retreat before shooting the would-be attacker. This law presented a big change to the legal landscape of shootings in which self defense was claimed.
The basic components are that for the use of deadly force in public to be justified under Florida’s self defense laws, the person using deadly force:
- must be in a place where they have a right to be;
- must not have been the initial aggressor in provoking the situation;
- must not have been committing a forcible felony at the time; and
- must reasonably believe the use of force is necessary to prevent death or great bodily harm or the imminent commission of a forcible felony
It’s not enough for the person to say “well, I genuinely believed that the other guy was going to attack me.” The question is whether a reasonable person, standing in the shooter’s shoes and knowing what the shooter knew at the time, would have reasonably believed that the shooting was necessary. You may personally think your perception of the situation was reasonable, but at the end of the day someone else will get to decide whether you were acting reasonably or not.
So, in one case, a lady shot her husband and later testified that she was afraid that he was reaching for a firearm when she shot him, and that he had previously committed acts of domestic violence against her while drunk and that he had recently resumed drinking. This was ruled self defense. But in another case, a son stabbed his father with a knife and then claimed self defense, but when it was revealed that the father had been wielding a small stick, it was determined that the son could not have reasonably thought he was in danger of imminent death or great bodily harm, so it was ruled not to be a valid self defense case under this law. In a third case, when a guy went into his house and got a knife and then came back outside and stabbed the victim, it was ruled not to be a valid case under Stand Your Ground. And in a fourth case, when one motorist stopped in the roadway and got out of his car and approached the people in the car behind him (a fairly common scenario that probably all of us have seen at one time or another), that was not sufficient justification to warrant a Stand Your Ground defense. In other words, keep a cool head in traffic! Just because someone “gets out” on you doesn’t mean you can shoot him.
Recently, an unarmed man (who was clearly the aggressor in a physical altercation) was shot in Pinellas County. The local sheriff determined that it was a legitimate shooting under this law, and declined to arrest the shooter. This has turned out to be a controversial decision, with some people believing that it was not a necessary shooting, and other people believing that the shooter was justified in his belief that great bodily harm was imminent. The other factor at play here, I believe, is that law enforcement is becoming more cautious about making arrests in self defense cases because another provision of law basically says that law enforcement is not even supposed to arrest the person who used force unless law enforcement can affirmatively prove that the use of force was unreasonable. My opinion is that the fear of suit is contributing to law enforcement’s decision-making process here in a way that it didn’t in the past. **Update: on August 13, 2018, the Pinellas County State Attorney decided to bring a direct charge in this matter, despite law enforcement electing not to make an arrest. We don’t have any sense of what the prosecutors’ theory of the case is at this point, but it will have to be revealed at some point, and it will be interesting to see where and how the prosecutors believe that this shooting does not measure up to the requirements of a Stand Your Ground case.**
We all have the right to self defense. And nobody should have to be victimized. The best way to avoid getting victimized and to avoid getting arrested in the wake of a self defense event is definitely to know your rights! Stay safe out there, folks.