A bill to expand Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law would allow the next George Zimmerman have his record cleared after successfully beating the rap for shooting someone and claiming self-defense.
The state Senate passed a bill Thursday to grant immunity to people with clean criminal records who fire a warning shot or threaten to use deadly force in self-defense.
The bill, which has already passed the House and will go to gun-friendly Gov. Rick Scott, also seals the court records of anyone charged with firing a weapon but later have those charges dropped
The “Threatened Use of Force” bill is heavily backed by the NRA and other gun advocates who want to protect gun owners from prosecution.
“This is about self-defense,” said the Sen. Greg Evers (R-Baker), who sponsored the bill. “It’s one more step forward for people to protect themselves.”
Only one Republican voted against the bill, which gained bipartisan support from seven Democrats in part due to the case of Marissa Alexander.
The Jacksonville woman was sentenced last year to 20 years in prison after firing a shot at her husband, whom she said was threatening her during a domestic dispute.
Alexander refused a plea deal that would have resulted in a three-year prison term, and jurors rejected her self-defense claim and convicted her on three counts of aggravated assault.
An appeals court ordered a new trial, but she could face up to 60 years if she’s convicted again because state law required mandatory 10- and 20-year terms for gun offenses.
The previous judge ordered her to serve her sentences concurrently, but the appeals court ruled Alexander must serve them consecutively, if she’s convicted again following a trial set to begin in July.
“A Pandora’s box is being opened again,” said Sen. Arthenia Joyner, (D-Tampa), who voted against the new bill. “I have great apprehension about what’s inside.”
An amendment tacked on March 4 to the bill expands “stand your ground” by expunging the court records of anyone found by a court to have used justifiable force.
State Sen. Charlie Dean (R-Inverness), a former sheriff, said the amendment was needed to protect the innocent.
“What part of innocence do we not understand?” Dean said. “I feel that should be something we should include (in the bill) that would make sure the record is automatically expunged.”
Those records, however, are crucial to understanding the implications of the controversial 2005 law, which a newspaper investigation found two years ago to be applied inconsistently.
“That would be like the police keeping no records of traffic stops as long as you beat your ticket, no record of child abuse as long as you can beat the rap, no record of murders as long as the shooter was found innocent,” said Jason Johnson, a Hiram College history professor. “We all know that, in theory, justice is blind, but this amounts to turning off the lights and closing the door just in case.”
The Tampa Bay Times reviewed 200 cases, and many of those records wouldn’t be available under the newly passed exemption.
“The only way we could have any debate (on the law) is because of newspapers who review cases and track it,” said Senate Minority Leader Chris Smith (D-Fort Lauderdale) who tried and failed to remove the amendment. “With this bill, it makes it harder to track these cases. Why would we tie our hands in knowing what happens in these cases?”
But the bill’s sponsor said the media still have ample time to report on shootings before charges are dropped.
“If you’re found innocent, I don’t think that you should have a record,” Evers said.
Zimmerman was acquitted last year on second-degree murder and manslaughter charges in the fatal 2012 shooting of unarmed teen Trayvon Martin, after the neighborhood watch volunteer suspected the teen of wrongdoing and followed him until the pair engaged in a violent confrontation.
In another case, Michael Dunn was recently convicted of second-degree attempted murder after opening fire on a car full of black teenagers during a confrontation over loud music but deadlocked on a murder charge in the teenage driver’s death.
Both men claimed self-defense under the “stand your ground” law.
Some have questioned what qualifies as a warning shot and how many warning shots are allowed. Smith argued that the bill sent to Scott would give “someone like Michael Dunn the opportunity to get away with filling a car with 11 bullets.”
Civil liberties advocates noted, however, that the state doesn’t provide the same safeguards to adolescents.
“If the legislature is concerned with expunging criminal records, they should start with the tens of thousands of students who were arrested in school for minor misbehavior last year, or the many people of color unable to vote in Florida because of a broken criminal justice system – not defendants with an itchy trigger finger and unchecked biases against black and brown people,” said Ahmad Abuznaid, legal and policy director at Dream Defenders.