Miami Judge: Florida's 'Stand Your Ground' Burden of Proof Law Unconstitutional

A new law shifting the burden of proof in “Stand Your Ground” cases violates the Florida Constitution, a Miami judge ruled Monday.

Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Milton Hirsch said the responsibility to shift the burden of proof in Stand Your Ground cases rested with the Florida Supreme Court rather than state legislators. 
 
“As a matter of constitutional separation of powers, that procedure cannot be legislatively modified,” Hirsch wrote in a 14-page order.

Just weeks ago, Florida lawmakers voted to pass the bill after years of attempts to muscle the legislation through the halls of the Florida Capitol. Gov. Rick Scott hopped on board with the bill, swiftly signing it into law last month.

The new defendant-friendly law would give defendants more protection from prosecution in “Stand Your Ground” cases by requiring prosecutors to prove whether a defendant is entitled to immunity at a pretrial hearing in order to disprove a claim of self-defense immunity. 
 
The legislation would flip the responsibility onto the prosecutor to prove why a defendant shouldn’t be allowed to use the Stand Your Ground defense in court.
 
Republicans pushed the burden of proof bill for years but didn’t have much success until this year’s regular legislative session, when lawmakers finally passed the bill along party lines. 
 
The proposal came on the heels of a 2015 Florida Supreme Court decision which ruled defendants would be responsible for the burden of proof showing they shouldn’t be prosecuted in “Stand Your Ground” cases.
 
The bill’s Senate sponsor, Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, filed identical legislation during last year’s legislative session and initially, the bill’s future seemed promising.
 
The measure had a relatively easy time making its way through the Senate, but it did not fare as well in the House, where it stalled out in the House Justice Committee, flopping due to a 6-6 vote.
 
This year state reps pushed the bill through the Legislature once and for all. Rep. Bobby Payne, R-Palatka, spearheaded the bill in the House while Bradley once again sponsored the Senate version of the bill. The National Rifle Association was quick to endorse the measure, putting significant weight behind the legislation to get it passed. 
 
Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law has been on the books since 2005, but it garnered national attention in 2014 during the Trayvon Martin case when defendant George Zimmerman claimed he was using self-defense when he shot the black teenager to death in Florida. 
 
Zimmerman was acquitted for the crime.
 
Republicans chimed in on Monday, unhappy with the Miami judge’s decision.
 
“It is the role of the Legislature to write the laws that govern how Floridians may exercise their statutory and constitutional rights,” wrote House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, on Twitter. “The Florida House will continue to stand with ordinary citizens who exercise their right to self-defense.”
 
A spokesperson for Attorney General Pam Bondi said Bondi’s office would appeal Hirsch’s decision.

Rep. Payne said he didn’t see how legislators had crossed the line when making the law.

“We acted lawfully and did not overstep our authority,” Payne told Sunshine State News Monday. “[It’s] doubtful as it goes through the appellate court that his ruling will be upheld.  We were well within our Constitutional Authority and remain committed to the outcome that was passed into law this year.”

 

 

Reach reporter Allison Nielsen by email at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter: @AllisonNielsen.

 

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