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Florida Police May Stand Their Ground

Florida Police May Stand Their Ground

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Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law has sparked enormous controversy since its enactment in 2005. Unsurprisingly, much of this consternation relates the namesake principle of the law, which clarifies that a person has no “duty to retreat” from dangerous situations.

But – despite the fanfare – the “Stand Your Ground” part of the law is perhaps not its most important component. After all, how often can a person can safely flee an already-dangerous encounter, where the use of force (including potentially deadly force) is reasonable? Not often. Even the most controversial SYG cases, such as George Zimmerman’s killing of Trayvon Martin, likely have the same outcomes even without the law. 1

Instead, a change in the procedural mechanism for invoking self-defense may prove to be the most important outgrowth of SYG. Traditionally, when a defendant claims self-defense, the burden is on the State to disprove that claim beyond a reasonable doubt at trial. A 2017 amendment to SYG, however, requires that the State first prove to the judge (by clear and convincing evidence) that self-defense does not apply, and then prove it again to the jury (beyond a reasonable doubt). This two-stage process not only previews the entire prosecution case to the defense; it gives two all-important “bites at the apple.” If the judge or the jury believe that self-defense might have been in play, the defendant walks. That is enormously powerful from a defense perspective.

Against this backdrop – a question emerged. Can law enforcement – who have their own, purpose-built self-defense law – also claim SYG immunity, complete with a pretrial immunity hearing?

At first blush, the answer seems obvious. SYG states that “a person” is justified in using force when reasonably necessary to prevent harm to himself or others. Police officers are “persons,” and thus would seemingly be covered under the law just like all other “persons.” The Second District Court of Appeal, however, looked at the question a bit differently. According to the Court, when presented with two laws addressing the same concept, the more specific statute should control over the more general one.  Thus, the law enforcement self-defense statute, being more specific to police activities, should control over the more general SYG law:

[W]hen construing multiple statutes addressing similar subjects, the specific statute . . . covering a particular subject matter is controlling over a general statutory provision covering the same and other subjects in general terms . . . [T]he specific language of section 776.05, titled ‘Law enforcement officers; use of force in making an arrest,’ must apply to the behavior of law enforcement officers during the course of an arrest, rather than the language of [Stand Your Ground], which applies generally to the public at large. We agree with the State's argument that holding otherwise would render the specific statute meaningless.

Essentially, the Court’s argument was based on legislative intent – why would the legislature have made two laws if it only needed one?

The Fourth District Court of Appeals, in a similar case, disagreed with this reasoning, concluding that parsing legislative intent is only appropriate if the text of the laws are ambiguous. If, on the other hand, the meaning of the laws are plain, that plain meaning should control:

When the statutory language is clear or unambiguous, this Court need not look behind the statute's plain language or employ principles of statutory construction to determine legislative intent.

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There is nothing in the term ‘a person’ that is unclear or ambiguous. A law enforcement officer under any reasonable understanding of our language qualifies as ‘a person.’

The Florida Supreme Court, addressing the conflict, agreed with the Fourth District, holding:

This Court is without power to construe an unambiguous statute in a way which would extend, modify, or limit, its express terms or its reasonable and obvious implications.

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Because these statutes plainly and unambiguously afford Stand Your Ground immunity to any “person” who acts in self-defense, there should be no reason for further analysis. Put simply, a law enforcement officer is a “person” whether on duty or off, and irrespective of whether the officer is making an arrest.

Taking the question one step further, the Court held that, where multiple defenses are granted by multiple (even overlapping) statutes, a defendant may pursue both, unless the statutes say otherwise:

Giving effect to all statutory provisions in such cases necessarily means that a law enforcement officer who claims that his or her use of force was justified under both statutes must be permitted to assert a defense under either or both—because the Legislature plainly provided for both defenses and there is nothing in the actual language of either statute that purports to abrogate the other.

This broad reading of rights and defenses is an encouraging development to the defense bar, and at least one small step towards ebbing the tide of overcriminalization.