PENSACOLA, Fla. (AP) — As a task force on Florida’s much-debated “stand your ground” law finished its final meeting Tuesday, its draft report recommended no sweeping changes to the statute and a key legislative leader said he would not favor such changes if they were recommended.
Florida’s incoming House speaker told The Associated Press that he doesn’t support big changes to stand your ground, which allows people to use deadly force — rather than retreat, as the law previously required — if they believe their lives are in danger.
Gov. Rick Scott created the task force and charged it with reviewing the law because of widespread protests following the fatal shooting in February of unarmed 17-year-old Trayvon Marin by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman in the Orlando suburb of Sanford.
Zimmerman has pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder and claims he was defending himself under the law. The shooting caused public outrage and sparked debate about the law.
Will Weatherford, who has been selected by the GOP caucus to be House speaker, said the Sanford shooting was a “sad tragedy,” and that he is willing to review the recommendations.
But Weatherford said he remains a firm believer in the Second Amendment.
“What we won’t do is use that tragedy as an excuse to water down people’s ability to defend themselves in Florida,” Weatherford said.
The task force reiterated this in its first recommendation, which affirmed stand your ground.
“The task force concurs with the core belief that all persons, regardless of citizenship status, have a right to feel safe and secure in our state. To that end, all persons have a fundamental right to stand their ground and defend themselves from attack with proportionate force in every place they have a lawful right to be and are conducting themselves in a lawful manner,” the draft recommendation stated.
Among the task force conclusions: The Legislature should look at whether stand your ground gives shooters immunity from detention or arrest during a shooting investigation. Okaloosa Sheriff Larry Ashley, a task force member, said there is some confusion among law enforcement about what immunity means and how it should be applied.
“I think, from law enforcement perspective, the question is what does ‘criminal prosecution’ mean, does it mean that we can or cannot detain someone? I believe that some law enforcement agencies believe that they are hindered in their investigation,” Ashley said.
Other task force members said they were concerned that self-defense shooters might have to pay for legal representation.
Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala and a sponsor of the original law, said he believes the Sanford case proved that law officers can detain and interrogate a self-defense shooter when investigators have questions about the circumstances of the shooting.
But Baxley said law-abiding shooters shouldn’t have to fear a jury trial.
“Every law-abiding citizen shouldn’t have to lawyer up,” he said.
The task force also recommended that the Legislature review standards for neighborhood watch groups to define the role of neighborhood watch participants “as limited to observing, watching, and reporting potential criminal activity to law enforcement.”
The task force said a neighborhood watcher’s purpose is not “to pursue, confront, or provoke potential suspects.”
Florida passed the “stand your ground law” seven years ago. It allows use of deadly force to prevent “imminent death or great bodily harm,” and it removed a person’s duty to retreat that was required in a previous self-defense law. The change was strongly backed by the National Rifle Association.
Earlier Tuesday, the panel heard from several Panhandle residents who said they support stand your ground and don’t want to see it weakened.
The law should not be repealed because of “one racially charged and media-hyped incident,” said Pensacola resident Joe Waldren.
Others said the stand your ground laws across the nation are dangerous.
“An individual who chooses to kill another is given greater protection under this law than a law enforcement officer,” said David LaBahn of the Washington DC-based Association of Prosecuting Attorneys.
“Prosecutors believe people have the right to defend themselves but offering immunity to those who choose to take others’ lives is problematic,” he said.
The task force has until the Legislature reconvenes in March to submit its report and should be done well before then.
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