A recent case of a neighborhood watch volunteer shooting and killing an unarmed teenager in Florida has raised interest in that state's so-called "Stand Your Ground" law. Melissa Block speaks with David Ovalle of The Miami Herald about Florida's law and the other states that have adopted similar statutes.
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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
For more on Florida's stand your ground law that Kathy Lohr mentioned, I'm joined by reporter David Ovalle, who's covered the law for The Miami Herald. David, welcome to the program.
DAVID OVALLE: Hi. How are you?
BLOCK: Tell us more about what exactly the stand your ground law says. It was passed in 2005 in Florida.
OVALLE: Well, prior to the passage of the law, a citizen in Florida had the duty to retreat when confronted with lethal force or with deadly force or the perception of deadly force. So they - someone had to retreat. But now, the way the law is structured, you can meet deadly force by basically standing your ground. Where you are is your castle, and you have the right to protect yourself. The problem comes with a lot of the police and prosecutors think that it basically gives carte blanche to shoot first and ask questions later. The law was also tweaked to give immunity to anyone from civil suit and from prosecution anyone deemed to have been using self-defense.
BLOCK: Well, who - at the time that the law was passed, who was in favor, and who was against?
OVALLE: Well, this was an NRA bill, and this is a Republican-dominated legislature, so, you know, it passed pretty easily. And it's been drawing complaints ever since.
BLOCK: NRA meaning the National Rifle Association, which...
OVALLE: Correct, correct.
BLOCK: ...was (unintelligible) this. Uh-huh. And opponents at the time?
OVALLE: Well, definitely a lot of the police and the prosecutors in Florida and victims advocates groups and gun control groups because they feared - and it's been proven in a few cases - that criminals would, basically, you know, be able to shoot first, ask questions later and - or use this law to sort of cover their criminal behavior. We've had cases where there was drugs involved, and one person shot another and claimed self-defense. And in some cases, it's worked. In some cases, it hasn't.
But I think that was always the fear. Now, the law has built into it that you can't be engaged in a crime, but that's another element that you can, you know, litigate as to whether you were actually involved in a crime when you were protecting yourself. So it just - it opens up more avenues for a defense, and I think that's really what a lot of the prosecutors and police have really sort of riled against.
BLOCK: Well, the governor of Florida at the time, Jeb Bush, had called it a good common sense anti-crime issue. Opponents called it the right to commit murder law. What's the impact been in Florida since the law was passed?
OVALLE: Well, I think you've seen a lot more cases that have not actually been charged, and a lot of cases that maybe were gray in the first place or would have gone to a jury for the determination of whether it was a crime or not basically being shot down before ever getting to a jury. And the important thing is the way the law sort of developed through the courts and some of the appellate issues is that now a judge basically has to decide under a looser standard than the beyond a reasonable doubt that the jury employs as to whether someone was - is immune from prosecution. So it basically gives defendants another bite at the apple, so to speak.
BLOCK: So you're saying that it's not just now that self-defense has entered as a justification at trial, but the charges aren't even being brought in the first place because of the law.
OVALLE: Yeah. Correct. There's been cases and I've seen cases where they just will not file to begin with, or they will file, you know, the prosecutors will drop the case somewhere down the road before letting it ever get to a judge or a jury. And there's been a handful of cases and some very high-profile cases here in South Florida in which a judge has outright granted immunity.
BLOCK: I've seen the statistic, David, that in Florida reports of justifiable homicides have tripled since the law went into effect. Any contention about that number?
OVALLE: Not that I've seen. I think it's - it seems pretty reasonable in talking anecdotally with police and prosecutors. And it's just harder to prove where cases that maybe, you know, 10 years ago would have been, you know, relatively a no-brainer to charge. Now, they really have to comb through each case and parse over every single fact to try to determine whether criminal charges. And I think it's going to be a law that is going to keep, you know, raising controversy in the years to come.
BLOCK: OK. David Ovalle, thanks very much.
OVALLE: Thank you.
BLOCK: David Ovalle covers state criminal court for The Miami Herald. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.