Tallahassee, FL - September 27, 2012
An appeals court Thursday agreed with the dismissal of criminal charges against a Miami-Dade County man who relied on the state's "stand your ground" law after a confrontation with two Florida Power & Light workers on his property.
Ernesto C. Vino was sleeping in his mobile home on March 9, 2009, when two FPL workers used a ladder to climb over his fence because of unpaid electricity bills by Vino and a neighbor. The workers were supposed to try to collect money from the customers or turn off power.
Vino, who had been a previous victim of crimes in his home, grabbed a rifle and went outside after being awakened by barking dogs. He confronted the workers with the gun and, though accounts differed, shot into the air as they left the property, according to a circuit judge's findings.
Prosecutors charged Vino with two counts of aggravated assault with a firearm, improper exhibition of a firearm and unlawful discharge of a firearm in public. But Vino said his actions were justified by the stand-your-ground law, which says people have a right to meet "force with force" if they reasonably believe such steps are necessary to prevent death or great bodily harm or to prevent a felony from being committed.
The 3rd District Court of Appeal on Thursday upheld a decision by Circuit Judge John W. Thornton, Jr., who found that the charges of aggravated assault with a firearm and improper exhibition of a firearm should be dismissed because of the stand-your-ground law.
Also, however, the appeals court agreed with Thornton that Vino could be prosecuted on the charge of unlawfully discharging a firearm --- because he shot the gun after learning the men worked for FPL and were not a threat.
The ruling noted that FPL has the legal right to enter customers' property to do such things as cut off electricity and said the utility filed a brief in the case.
It said FPL's brief "expresses concern over the special burden this (stand-your-ground) law places on its more than 3,000 field employees in the state for whom unlawful customer resistance in the field is a constant hazard. FPL has strict protocols concerning when and how it exercises its statutory privilege to enter onto customer property."
Florida's stand-your-ground law has become highly controversial during the past year because of a Seminole County incident in which neighborhood-watch volunteer George Zimmerman fatally shot teenager Trayvon Martin. Zimmerman has claimed the stand-your-ground defense in the case.
The Martin shooting led to the creation of a state commission that has been studying the law, though it remains unclear whether the Legislature will ultimately make changes.