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What Does Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” Law Really Mean?
Posted by: Thomas Grajek  | On 12th September, 2019

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Although Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law was enacted in 2005, it wasn’t until the death of Trayvon Martin in 2012 that it first gained national attention. This law, which extends the concept of self-defense to permit a person in fear for their life to use deadly force to stop the attack, is most often utilized in cases involving gun violence. But attempts to invoke this defense aren’t always successful. What does Florida’s stand your ground (SYG) law mean, and how is it used in practice?

What “Stand Your Ground” Means

In states without SYG laws, self-defense is permitted only when it is proportionate to the initial contact. For example, if someone slightly bumps into you from behind, responding with a punch to the face is considered assault, not self-defense. And even when it comes to an attack that involves lethal force, a self-defense analysis will look at the likelihood that the attack was imminent. If someone is brandishing a knife from 50 yards away, shooting them is far more likely to be considered manslaughter than if they are brandishing a knife from a few feet away.

But under SYG laws, an individual can respond to an attack with deadly force whenever they believe they are in danger of death or serious bodily injury. Because this focuses on the individual’s belief that their life is in danger, not the actual risk of harm, the SYG defense has been invoked in a number of cases in which an argument or physical fight has ended in the shooting of an aggressor who was later determined to be unarmed.

How This Law is Used

Recently, Florida legislators extended SYG protections to require prosecutors to prove that SYG doesn’t apply, instead of requiring the defendant to prove that it does. This means that SYG laws protect against wrongful arrest, and police and cities may be civilly liable for lost wages, legal fees, and other damages if they arrest or charge someone who is later determined to qualify for SYG protections. As a result, police generally won’t arrest the suspect in a fatal shooting where SYG is a possibility until they’re certain that it doesn’t apply.

In June 2018, police and prosecutors weighed SYG principles when deciding whether to charge Florida resident Michael Drejka with manslaughter after he fatally shot another man in a dispute over a handicapped parking spot. But ultimately, they determined that Drejka’s belief in imminent danger was not justified—in part because surveillance video showed the victim backing away from Drejka before he was shot—and just one year later, Drejka was convicted of manslaughter.

While Drejka plans to appeal the verdict, this shows that the SYG defense isn’t always successful when there is objective evidence that the defendant’s life was not in imminent danger.

 

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