Florida lawmakers vote to expand ‘stand your ground’ law

Michael Dunn, takes the stand in his own defense during his trial in Jacksonville, Fla., Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2014. Dunn is charged with fatally shooting 17-year-old Jordan Davis after an argument over loud music outside a Jacksonville, Fla. convenient story in 2012. (The Florida Times-Union, Bob Mack, Pool)

Less than a week after a jury failed to convict Michael Dunn of first-degree murder in the shooting death of an unarmed teenager, a bipartisan group of Florida lawmakers passed a bill out of committee on Thursday that would expand the state’s controversial “stand your ground” law.

Dunn, 47, was charged with murdering 17-year-old Jordan Davis outside a convenience store last year. Dunn said he feared for his life after he asked Davis and three other teenagers to turn down the music in their car. He claimed he saw a shotgun in their car and then fired 10 shots, three of which hit and killed Davis. No gun was found in the car.

A Jacksonville jury deadlocked on Saturday on a first-degree murder charge against Dunn, convicting him for firing shots at the car while it was fleeing the scene but not for Davis’ murder. Dunn could face 75 years in prison on the lesser charges. The state announced this week that it will retry Dunn for murder.

The verdict — handed down seven months after neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman was acquitted of murdering 17-year-old Trayvon Martin — is again angering civil rights activists, who argue that Florida’s self-defense laws contribute to a legal system that fails to secure justice for African-Americans.

When Zimmerman, who is half Hispanic, was acquitted in the death of the black teen, civil rights groups pointed to a Florida self-defense case that turned out very differently. Marissa Alexander, a 32-year-old black woman, was sentenced to 20 years in prison for firing a warning shot at her estranged husband, who she said was threatening to abuse her. Activists said Alexander’s lengthy sentence showed that the states’ court system applied self-defense law in a racist way. (Alexander is awaiting a retrial after her original conviction was overturned in September for faulty jury instructions.)

Ironically, the outrage over the Alexander case may now lead to an even broader “stand your ground” law. Florida is one of 23 states with laws that say people do not have a duty to try to retreat before using deadly force when threatened in public places. Zimmerman and Dunn’s juries were both told about the law when they deliberated, though neither of the men explicitly invoked it in their defenses.

On Thursday, a National Rifle Association-backed bill to expand the state’s self-defense statutes sailed through a key state House committee with bipartisan support. It is expected to pass the full chamber. The “threatened use of force” bill would most likely have prevented Alexander from receiving her lengthy sentence, because it amends “stand your ground” to include the threat of force, not just the use of force itself.

As the law is interpreted by some prosecutors now, someone who fires a shot in self-defense and misses is less protected by the law than someone who fires a shot in self-defense and hits his or her target, according to John Banzhaf, a professor of public interest law at George Washington University. That’s because “stand your ground” laws only explicitly protect the successful use of force, not the threat of force, in self-defense. A person who threatens to shoot someone in self-defense is also more at fault than a person who actually shoots and kills an attacker, thanks to the laws.

The bill also exempts people who threaten to use force while attempting to defend themselves from facing mandatory minimum sentences, which has earned it the support of public defenders. Alexander’s 20-year sentence was a mandatory minimum requirement.

“It’d be very strange if a defendant has the right or privilege to shoot somebody in self-defense but he doesn’t have the right or privilege to take out the gun and say ‘Stop or I’ll shoot you,’” Banzhaf said. The bill corrects that misinterpretation.

The campaign to repeal “stand your ground” laws after the Martin shooting has been largely unsuccessful. The Rev. Al Sharpton, who led many of the national protests around Martin’s death in 2012 and 2013, said he and other civil right leaders asked President Barack Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder to review the laws in a meeting at the White House this week. In July, Holder said the laws “sow dangerous conflict in our neighborhoods.”

“We’ve got to deal with these ‘stand your ground’ laws that I think are being used in a way that definitely impacts blacks,” Sharpton said. Sharpton is leading a rally in Tallahassee on March 10 to repeal the law.