Baxley: Prosecutors misinterpret Stand Your Ground law
Published: Monday, August 12, 2013 at 4:00 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, August 12, 2013 at 4:32 p.m.
Florida’s controversial “stand your ground” law was intended to give law-abiding citizens the means to defend themselves against bad guys.
But should it also provide immunity for people who, themselves, are law-breakers?
State Rep. Dennis Baxley, who authored the law, insists it should not — and said he is puzzled that state attorneys around Florida aren’t prosecuting drug dealers, convicted felons and other law-breakers who shoot someone in the name of self-defense.
Baxley said prosecutors are widely misinterpreting the law, and as evidence he pointed to the case of a 17-year-old Ocala boy who shot a man when the man came at him with a stick in early July.
Last week, the State Attorney’s Office here concluded that the teen, Tyrone Pierson, was, indeed, entitled to defend himself under the “stand your ground” law, even though it was illegal for him to have the gun that he used to shoot 40-year-old Julius Jacobs.
Pierson and his friends told authorities they were walking on the side of the road when Jacobs sped past in his SUV and they yelled at him to slow down. Jacobs reportedly pulled into a nearby driveway and had a brief conversation with a woman, then climbed back into his vehicle and came after the teens.
Witnesses said Jacobs jumped out with a stick and said he was going to beat them. As the other boys ran, Pierson pulled a pistol and shot Jacobs dead.
While the law permits everyone to use deadly force if they believe it is “necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself … or to prevent the imminent commission of a forcible felony,” Baxley noted that there is an important caveat: The law doesn’t apply to you if you were engaged in “unlawful activity” when you fought back.
As a minor carrying a concealed weapon, Pierson was breaking the law, Baxley said, and should not have been automatically granted immunity from prosecution.
“ ‘Stand your ground’ was written for law-abiding citizens who are doing nothing wrong,” the lawmaker said. “I think it’s perfectly clear that this doesn’t apply if you’re doing something illegal.”
The problem, as Baxley sees it, is a fundamental misunderstanding of the 2005 law. He said it was never meant to replace traditional self-defense laws, but to add a layer of protection for the average person.
He argues that “stand your ground” was entitled only to protect innocent citizens from prosecution if they use force to defend themselves in their homes, their cars or anyplace else they have a legal right to be. As such, it provides an automatic presumption of innocence.
Baxley said Pierson should still be able to argue self-defense in court, but because he was carrying a gun illegally he shouldn’t automatically be presumed innocent under “stand your ground.”
What seems so clear to Baxley has been anything but clear for prosecutors and the courts, however.
Much of the disagreement is over whether people engaged in “unlawful activity” should be exempt from “stand your ground” protections.
Chief Assistant State Attorney Ric Ridgway said the law is pretty clear that you cannot claim self-defense if you were committing a “forcible felony” — breaking into a home or car, for instance, robbing someone, or physically attacking another.
It also seems clear that someone should not be exempt from “stand your ground” protection for a minor legal infraction.
“If you’re at a parking meter and your time has expired, you’re engaged in ‘unlawful activity,’ ” Ridgway said. “But does that mean you’re not entitled to assert your right to stand your ground if you’re attacked in your car there? Of course not.”
But Ridgway and Baxley don’t agree on whether Pierson’s alleged crime — carrying a concealed firearm without a permit and possession of a firearm by a minor — should exempt him from protection under the law.
Carrying a gun is not a forcible felony, Ridgway argues.
But it’s still “unlawful activity,” Baxley counters.
The State Attorney’s Office made a similar ruling in 2011, after a teen shot a man to death outside the AMC Galaxy bowling alley on Southwest 17th Street.
In that incident, an argument between two groups of young men spilled out of the bowling alley to the parking lot. As one of the groups got in their Jeep to leave, 19-year-old Antonio “TJ” Lamar Gordon Jr. reportedly reached through an open window and started throwing punches. A passenger in the Jeep, Marquelle Woolbright, 17, pulled a .22-caliber pistol and shot Gordon dead.
Like Pierson, Woolbright was charged with having a concealed weapon illegally but was cleared of a murder charge based on “stand your ground.”
Florida courts don’t even agree on who is entitled to claim a “stand your ground” defense.
In State v. Hill, the 4th District Court of Appeal in West Palm Beach decided in 2012 that a convicted felon who shot a man during an altercation was not entitled to claim self-defense because of the “unlawful activity” clause.
Months later, the 2nd District Court of Appeal was asked to decide whether another convicted felon named Aaron Little could claim self-defense after shooting a man who leveled a gun at him.
In an opinion handed down in April this year, the 2nd DCA said he was.
The court said, as the 4th DCA did in the Hill case, that section 776.013 of the law prohibits someone engaged in unlawful activity from claiming self-defense. But according to the court, section 776.012 of the same law does allow even a convicted felon with a gun to defend himself with force if he has a reasonable fear of death or injury.
In issuing that ruling, however, the 2nd DCA noted the conflict between its ruling and the 4th DCA’s ruling and asked the Florida Supreme Court to break the tie.
“That’s normal for newly enacted laws,” said Bob Dekle, a professor at the University of Florida’s Levin College of Law. “You go through a period of flux — sometimes for years — while the courts sort out the implications of the law.”
Dekle believes the Supreme Court will eventually agree with the 2nd DCA, and with the State Attorney’s Office in Ocala, that even those toting guns illegally are entitled to defend their lives.
Baxley hopes they don’t.
“(Prosecutors) seem to be focusing on the moment of life-taking — whether the shooter was in danger — and not the entire context which the statute tries to address ... the conduct of the person,” he said.