Florida Supreme Court rules 'stand your ground' defense may be used in older cases

click to enlarge Florida Supreme Court rules 'stand your ground' defense may be used in older cases
Pensacola courtroom photo via Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons
Wading into a controversial 2017 change to the state’s “stand your ground” self-defense law, the Florida Supreme Court ruled Thursday that the change applies to defendants in some older cases.

The ruling was at least a partial victory for Tashara Love, who was charged in a 2015 shooting outside a Miami-Dade County nightclub and argued that she should be shielded from prosecution because of the “stand your ground” law.

Love contended that her case should be governed by the 2017 change, which shifted a key burden of proof in “stand your ground” cases from defendants to prosecutors – a shift that could make it easier for at least some defendants to avoid prosecution.

The 3rd District Court of Appeal ruled that the 2017 change should not apply retroactively to older cases, such as Love’s case. But the Supreme Court on Thursday unanimously overturned that decision. Justices said the change applies to cases in which pretrial hearings on “stand your ground” claims had not been held at the time the 2017 change took effect.

“(The change) is a procedural change in the law and applies to all Stand Your Ground immunity hearings conducted on or after the statute’s effective date,” said the opinion, written by Chief Justice Charles Canady. “In Love, the pretrial hearing took place after the effective date … and should have been conducted under the new standard.”

The underlying “stand your ground” law says people are justified in using deadly force and do not have a “duty to retreat” if they believe it is necessary to prevent death or great bodily harm. When the defense is successfully raised in pre-trial hearings, defendants are granted immunity from prosecution.

The change applies to cases in which pretrial hearings on “stand your ground” claims had not been held at the time the 2017 change took effect.

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The controversial change approved in 2017 by the Legislature and then-Gov. Rick Scott was rooted in a 2015 Florida Supreme Court decision that said defendants had the burden of proof in the pre-trial hearings to show they should be shielded from prosecution. With backing from groups such as the National Rifle Association, the 2017 law shifted the burden from defendants to prosecutors to prove whether a self-defense claim is justified.

But the question in the Love case – and in another case from Hillsborough County – was whether the shift in the burden of proof should be applied to cases that started before the 2017 change.

In backing Love’s arguments Thursday, the Supreme Court sent her case back to lower courts for further proceedings.

Justices, however, ruled against the Hillsborough County defendant, Tymothy Ray Martin, whose “stand your ground” pretrial hearing had already been held before the 2017 change. Martin was convicted of felony battery in a 2016 altercation involving his girlfriend.

Martin appealed his conviction, and the appeal was pending when the Legislature and Scott shifted the burden of proof in “stand your ground” cases. Martin argued that the new standard should apply to his case, and the 2nd District Court of Appeal agreed and ordered that he receive a new hearing.

But the Supreme Court opinion Thursday rejected Martin’s arguments, saying the “legislation itself is devoid of any suggestion that the Legislature intended (the 2017 change) to undo pre-effective date immunity hearings,” such as the hearing in Martin’s case.

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