Critics decry decision to let Florida police officers use 'stand your ground' defense

Allowing police to invoke the law only "makes it harder for our justice system to deliver justice in these cases," one critic said.
Image: Supporters of Trayvon Martin gather for a rally in front of Florida Senator Marco Rubio's office to protest his support for Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law in Miami in 2012.
Protesters rally against Florida's "stand your ground" law in Miami in 2012.Joe Raedle / Getty Images file

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By Erik Ortiz

When Florida's highest court ruled last week that police officers have the right to invoke a "stand your ground" defense, including in cases of deadly force, the decision hinged on the idea that, well, police are people, too.

Like any other Floridian who believes someone else is endangering his or her life, "a law enforcement officer is a 'person' whether on duty or off, and irrespective of whether the officer is making an arrest," Justice Alan Lawson wrote for the state Supreme Court in its unanimous decision.

But instead of clearing up the issue, the ruling, lawyers and legal experts say, may end up creating confusion and grant police officers increased latitude under a law that has been under scrutiny and criticized as one of the broadest in the nation since it was enacted in 2005.

"There are already so many layers of impunity for police, ways in which they can avoid criminal prosecution when they act irresponsibly in those snap judgment moments," said Caroline Light, author of "Stand Your Ground: A History of America's Love Affair With Lethal Self-Defense" and a senior lecturer at Harvard. "It makes it harder for our justice system to deliver justice in these cases."

Charles Rose, a professor at the Stetson University College of Law in Florida, said one consequence of the ruling may be that when a police officer uses deadly force in a way that could be deemed unacceptable under his or her department's guidelines, as a private citizen it may be considered justified.

"What happens then? We already exist in a place where it is easier for a private citizen to use deadly force than it can be for a police officer," Rose said. "The opinion put forth by the Supreme Court essentially lets law enforcement do what anybody else already can."

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The state Supreme Court ruling focused on a specific case from 2013, when Peter Peraza, a Broward County sheriff's deputy, fatally shot Jermaine McBean — a 33-year-old black man who was walking home after purchasing an unloaded air rifle from a pawn shop.

On his way home, McBean had attracted attention from witnesses who claimed he was acting aggressively. During an encounter with police, the officers said McBean failed to heed warnings to drop the weapon. It was later shown he had been wearing earbuds, and witnesses denied he was pointing the air rifle at police before Peraza shot him.

Peraza, who identifies as white Hispanic, was indicted on a manslaughter charge in 2015, and used a "stand your ground" defense to avoid trial by saying that he feared for his life when McBean didn't comply. A Broward circuit judge ended up dismissing the charge, although an appeals court disagreed and the case ended up in the hands of the state Supreme Court.

Eric Schwartzreich, an attorney for the Broward Police Benevolent Association who represented Peraza, hailed the latest ruling as "groundbreaking," and said that "every law enforcement officer in the state of Florida can go to work and do their job and not worry about being second-guessed."

But the Broward County State Attorney's Office, which has been opposed to "stand your ground" from the beginning, said in a statement that the legislation remains "a bad law and it doesn't allow a trial jury to hear the evidence and make a decision."

In general, Floridians can defend themselves with deadly force if they believe they are in imminent danger or death — and not only when inside their homes. The person being threatened is not required to try and flee.

If charges are ultimately brought against someone, they can raise a "stand your ground" defense during a pre-trial hearing with a judge, and if they are successful, they are granted immunity from prosecution. (Immunity, however, isn't given to someone who uses force against a police officer in the line of duty.)

Light said police officers are already given the benefit of the doubt because their job is to uphold the law, and their word holds more weight against someone with a dubious criminal record.

In addition, Light said, a judge may be locally elected, so if the fate of a police officer claiming "stand your ground" rests with him or her as opposed to a jury, the question of impartiality can be raised.

"Maybe they were elected with the heavy backing of a police union," she added. "That's a lot of power to put in the hands of one person, one judge who may have a feeling of political indebtedness."

While at least 24 states have some form of a "stand your ground" law, cases in Florida have often gained national attention, from the fatal shooting of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin in 2012 to that of Markeis McGlockton, an unarmed father of three killed in a convenience store parking lot in July.

State Democratic lawmakers have called for a renewed push to repeal the law in the next session, arguing it disproportionately effects people of color. In an opinion piece in The Orlando Sentinel on Friday, Rep. Val Demings, D-Fla., who served as police chief in Orlando from 2007 to 2011, said that they have "put our state's safety at risk" by failing to act.

"All Florida residents should be concerned about this law — next time, it could be your mother, father, child or friend whose life is cut short for no good reason," she wrote.