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Florida's 'stand your ground' law applied unevenly

Florida's "stand your ground" law has received a lot of national attention and generated a great deal of controversy in the past year. The controversy centers on a high-profile case in which a man invoked the law following the shooting of a teenager. A recent news report, however, indicates that many people facing felony charges of murder and assault are going to prison without invoking their rights under the law.

"Stand your ground" became law in Florida in 2005. Under the law, people who reasonably believe their lives are in danger do not have to retreat but can instead defend themselves with deadly force, if necessary. If an investigation shows that use of deadly force was justified under the stand your ground law, murder charges can be dismissed.

An individual who invokes the defense successfully does not even have to go to trial. In a pretrial hearing, a judge determines whether an individual has immunity under the law. The judge reviews the evidence and makes determinations as to whether the person was violating any laws at the time, whether an individual's presence at the scene was lawful, and whether the defendant was reasonably in fear for his or her life. If the judge decides that the defendant is entitled to immunity under the law, charges are dismissed. A survey by a Florida newspaper found that charges have been dropped in one in three cases in which the stand your ground law was invoked.

The same newspaper report, however, concluded that many people do not invoke the law when the facts might support immunity. In some cases, defense attorneys make a tactical decision not to do so because the immunity hearing means letting prosecutors know at an early stage what the defendant's case will be. Other lawyers believe the statute is difficult to apply because its language is unclear. In any case, defense counsel should carefully weigh the risks in deciding whether to assert the defense.

Source: Tampa Bay Times, "Some law-abiding citizens claiming self-defense go to prison without invoking 'stand your ground'," Michael LaForgia, Oct. 7, 2012

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Andrew M. Coffey has been recognized as a Board Certified Civil Trial lawyer by the Florida Bar. Certification is the highest level of recognition by The Florida Bar of the competency and experience of attorneys in the areas of law approved for certification by the Supreme Court of Florida.

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