A move to shift the burden of proof in stand your ground self-defense cases is off to a fast start in the House, where the controversial proposal died a year ago.
The House Criminal Justice Subcommittee, voted 9-4 along party lines Wednesday to approve the National Rifle Association-backed measure (HB 245), which would shift the burden of proof from defendants to prosecutors during pretrial hearings in stand your ground cases.
The bill, sponsored by Rep. Bobby Payne, R-Palatka, and Rep. Jason Fischer, R-Jacksonville, only has to clear the Judiciary Committee before reaching the House floor during the annual legislative session that starts March 7.
A Senate version (SB 128) has cleared its committees and could be one of the first bills approved by the full Senate next month.
The proposal stems from a Florida Supreme Court ruling in 2015 that said defendants have the burden of proof to show they should be shielded from prosecution under the stand your ground law.
In stand your ground cases, pretrial evidentiary hearings are held to determine whether defendants should be immune from prosecution.
Payne said the bill would strengthen the self-defense law and that concerns by critics are “certainly overstated.”
“It does not protect those that are creating some type of felony or assault,” Payne said after Wednesday’s meeting. “That is not what self-defense is for.”
Opponents maintain the change would end cases before all the facts are revealed and contend that the stand your ground law has disproportionate effects, as it is used more successfully as a defense when white shooters kill African-Americans.
But Rep. Gayle Harrell, a Stuart Republican who was in the House when the stand your ground law was approved, said the proposal meets the intent of lawmakers who crafted the law in 2005.
“It’s a shame that we have to come to this point of having to clarify, but I believe that that was the case,” Harrell said.
Meanwhile, Rep. Jared Moskowitz, D-Coral Springs, said he could support the change if it were more narrowly defined to situations where there is “overriding evidence.”
But he expressed concerns about people who may use the defense when the only witness was killed in the encounter.
“It’s blanket immunity and then we’re saying to the prosecution, ‘You have to undo that immunity if you have enough evidence,’ “ Moskowitz said. “And, ‘Oh by the way you have to do it at a pretrial hearing,’ when usually all witnesses may not have been identified and all the evidence may not have been gathered at that point.”
The proposed change, which is supported by the Florida Public Defender Association, was approved by the Senate in a 24-12 vote last year, but failed to advance through the House committee process.
New House leaders, however, appear to have put this year’s version of the bill on the fast track.