Stand Your Ground Calls More For Clarification Than Repeal

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David Royse, The News Service of Florida

While there's no consensus on whether the state's "stand your ground" self defense law may apply in the Trayvon Martin case, and not everyone agrees on whether it's bad or good law, a consensus is emerging that it may not be as clear as it could be as to what it allows and doesn't.

As the 2005 law has come under intense scrutiny in the wake of the Sanford shooting of the unarmed 17-year-old Martin, veteran lawmakers haven't been able to agree even on what the measure allows, which, the bill's sponsor acknowledges may point to a need for clarification.

"There's nothing in the statute that provides for any kind of aggressive action, in terms of pursuit and confront," said Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, who sponsored the measure in 2005. "So I think that's been some misapplication of this statute. If anything could come out of this very tragic circumstance, it could be some clarification of when this applies and how.

It's always hard to predict what lawmakers might do on a particular issue, but several members of the Legislature on both sides of the law supporters and opponents did say this week that it likely would come in for some clarification. And while there have been calls for repeal, particularly from a few black lawmakers, most said they thought some sort of change was more likely.

"There's a critical and urgent need to look at the law, and at least clarify it, or explain it," said Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, one of several African-American legislators who have called for revisiting the statute either in a special session, or when lawmakers convene.

The incoming Democratic leader in the House, Rep. Perry Thurston, D-Plantation, and also African-American, acknowledged that a full repeal of the law isn't likely, but also referred to the general sense that prosecutors, police and even judges may not know exactly where the lines are in terms of self defense in a public setting.

"The concern is that the application has not been fully explained, there's some vagueness about some of the terms," said Thurston. "We just need to make sure it's being applied appropriately."

Supporters of the law, which allows the use of defensive lethal force in public without a duty to retreat first, say it's not clear yet whether it would apply in the shooting death of Martin last month in Sanford. George Zimmerman, a community resident who had volunteered for the neighborhood crime watch, shot Martin in what he told police was self defense. The case has gained national attention but has also drawn new attention to the stand your ground law, which was first passed in Florida, but is now law in several other states. Zimmerman's lawyer, Craig Sonner, said in a nationally televised interview, that the stand your ground defense probably would come into the case. Zimmerman hasn't been arrested or charged with anything.

The measure largely expanded common law doctrine about what people may do to defend themselves when attacked in their home or car they have long been able to stand their ground and fight force with force in those places. Under the 2005 law, that also goes for people who feel threatened out in public, in a street, a business, or at a public event, for example.

Meanwhile, the incoming Senate Democratic leader, Sen. Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, again urged Gov. Rick Scott to let lawmakers look at the issue sooner rather than later, pleading for the governor to call a special session. Smith had asked earlier this week for a special session on the stand your ground law, but Scott said he wants to wait until a law enforcement investigation is complete and then have a task force meet make recommendations on what, if anything, to do about the state's self defense law.

"A preventable death is exactly what you're risking now," Smith responded in a second letter on Wednesday. "We have more than enough evidence already on hand of the deadly confrontations and self defense claims to begin a closer examination of the laws track record and whether changes are needed to stop its abuse. There is absolutely no reason the public should accept any delay when seven years of history already exist."

Rep. Dwight Bullard, a Miami Democrat, said earlier this week that many who don't think the law works very well might be OK with a new measure that seeks to clarify how it should work but said that at a minimum that had to happen.

"If not, I can definitely look to see multiple offerings of repealing the law," said Bullard.

Lawmakers aren't currently scheduled to return until next year and won't file new legislation until after the November election.

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