TALLAHASSEE — A Florida Senate committee on Monday approved a bill that would tweak the state’s controversial “stand your ground” law, bidding to clarify who can use that defense and proposing law enforcement be able to set guidelines for neighborhood watch groups.
The proposed adjustments approved by the Senate Criminal Justice Committee also would seek to clarify immunity in such cases and allow law enforcement to conduct investigations even when “stand your ground” is being invoked as a defense.
The bill has now been approved by two Senate committees and awaits two more before it would reach the Senate floor. The Community Affairs committee is the next stop for the measure which is co-sponsored by Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, and Sen. Christopher Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale.
Florida law says people who are not involved in illegal activity have the right to stand their ground and meet force with force, including deadly force, if they reasonably believe it is necessary to avoid death or great bodily harm.
Calls for reform of that law surged after unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin was fatally shot in 2012 by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman, in a case that drew national attention. Zimmerman was acquitted in July of second-degree murder in the death of the 17-year-old in Sanford. Last week, the Rev. Al Sharpton led hundreds seeking reform of the law in a march to the state Capitol.
The legislation passed the committee unanimously Monday, despite being a topic that traditionally splits down party lines. The NRA, represented by Marion Hammer, even supported the bill.
“There’s nothing in the ‘stand your ground’ law that suggests the Supreme Court could interpret it to mean you lose your innocence until proven guilty when somebody attacks you,” Hammer said. “This law is about protecting innocent people who come under attack through no fault of their own and then are treated like criminals by the judicial system.”
U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville, made her third appearance at the Capitol this month to speak out on “stand your ground.” She believes major changes to the law are needed but this is an acceptable first step.
“It’s a bad bill but I’ve never seen a perfect bill,” Brown said. “But it’s a perfect beginning to get some clarity because the way it is now is too broad. This is the beginning of the process to bring some understanding to it.”
Smith admitted there are things in the bill he doesn’t like but he has been willing to make concessions. Smith has also been outspoken against “stand your ground” in its current form and voted against it when it was passed in 2005. He and other opponents believe there is a duty to retreat from a threat if it can be done safely.
“The problem that we have in Florida is that there is a law on the books that’s being interpreted in many different ways,” said Smith, adding, “It’s incumbent on this Legislature to say something about the law this year. It will be an absolute travesty if this [session] ends and this Legislature does nothing to send a message on ‘stand your ground.’”
It is unclear if the bill will pass in the House, as Speaker Will Weatherford does not believe any changes are necessary. Simmons acknowledged the hurdle.
“I have had indications from members of the House that if we can get the consensus over here that they’ll potentially take it up,” Simmons said. “So, it has a distinct possibility of getting a hearing over there.”