Deadly-force law has an effect, but Florida hasn't become the Wild West
State attorneys say it makes filing charges more difficult for prosecutors.
By J. TAYLOR RUSHING, Capital Bureau Chief
The 'deadly force' law at a glance
What it is: The "deadly force" law allows Floridians to use force against a perceived deadly threat and removes a traditional clause that requires them to retreat first before doing so.
What it says: "A person has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force if the person is in a place where he or she has a right to be and the force is necessary to prevent death, great bodily harm, or the commission of a forcible felony."
How it passed: As Senate Bill 436, it passed the Florida Senate 39-0 on March 23, 2005, and the House 94-20 on April 5, 2005. It was signed by Gov. Jeb Bush on April 26, 2005.
When it started: The law took effect on Oct. 1.
The 2005 deadly force law has affected the following handful of cases in Duval County, in which prosecutors either filed no charges or reduced charges:
A late 2005 incident in which a Jacksonville man was shot by a motorist after an argument in which the victim allegedly attacked the driver.
A January incident in which a Jacksonville man was shot to death by an acquaintance during a domestic dispute.
A March incident in which a Jacksonville man was shot to death after going to an acquaintance's home and demanding money, at gunpoint, allegedly owed to him.
A March incident in which a Jacksonville woman was stabbed to death by another woman after a road rage episode.
A May incident in which a Jacksonville man was shot at a local electronics store after confronting the store owner.
Source: Office of State Attorney Harry Shorstein
TALLAHASSEE -- Last year, Florida's new "deadly force" law was simply an interesting newspaper story to Doug Freeman.
This year, it may have saved him from prison.
Freeman, owner of Marvin's Electronics in Jacksonville's Murray Hill neighborhood, has claimed self-defense in shooting 26-year-old Vincent Hudson five times in his store on the night of May 31. Their stories differ on the nature of the confrontation -- it was either an attempted robbery or a request for money -- but Hudson survived and Freeman won't face charges.
The murky details contain one clear point: Florida's legal landscape has changed since Oct. 1, when a law took effect that broadens the legal principle of self-defense.
"I knew about the law, but it's not something you think about on a moment's notice," Freeman said. "It's a good law. It should have been enacted years ago. There has to be a mechanism in place to safeguard average citizens against something like this."
Predictions flew across Florida last summer that the deadly force law would turn the state into a Wild West environment where shootings flared during everyday confrontations. With the law on the books for nine months, prosecutors and defense attorneys say the changes have actually been more subtle.
What's happened, most say, is that more homicides are not being prosecuted or that they result in reduced charges.
"We expected the larger impact to be in trials, with people jumping into court because of shootings and lots of shouting from the rooftops. That's not happening," said Jacksonville lawyer Russell Smith, president-elect of the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. "The real impact has been that it's making filing decisions difficult for prosecutors. It's causing cases to not be filed at all or to be filed with reduced charges."
In Duval County, where this year's homicide epidemic has heightened attention on the 2005 law, State Attorney Harry Shorstein largely agrees. There have been 86 homicides so far this year in the county, compared with 91 for all of last year. Duval has had the highest per-capita murder rate of any Florida county for six straight years.
The law apparently can't be blamed for the homicide binge, Shorstein said, because it has influenced only a handful of homicide or attempted homicide cases. One of those was the Marvin's Electronics shooting. Although Shorstein has publicly sided with Hudson, he said the new law played a role in deciding not to press a case against Freeman.
Shorstein, whose office covers Duval, Clay and Nassau counties, agreed that the law has hindered prosecutors. Although his office has only cited it a few times among this year's homicides, he believes it has had a wider influence that is prevalent, but difficult to document.
"It's caused a general expansion of self-defense, which makes all issues of self-defense more favorable to the defendant or suspect than before," he said. "It's also created a greater propensity to use deadly force than existed before. There's a lesser sensitivity to gun violence and death, and that's not good. The last thing we need in Jacksonville is a greater use of deadly force."
State Attorney John Tanner, whose office covers Flagler, Putnam, St. Johns and Volusia counties, said he can't blame the deadly-force law for any increase in homicides in his jurisdiction.
"And I would notice it because I personally review all homicides in the 7th Circuit -- even vehicular," Tanner said.
The law, written by the National Rifle Association, passed by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Jeb Bush, eases the rules by which Floridians can use deadly force in self-defense. Residents can now use such force to protect themselves anywhere they have "a right to be" without first trying to retreat. In allowing this, the law broadened the "castle doctrine," named for the English common-law tradition that a man has a right to defend his castle, by applying it to public settings.
Bruce Colton, president of the Florida State Attorneys Association, said prosecutors across Florida seem to be having the same experiences as Shorstein and Tanner.
"I haven't heard any horror stories statewide," Colton said. "I never thought people would start shooting each other all over state. But I do see anomalies from time to time, and that's what state attorneys are concerned about."
The most lasting legacy of the law is likely to be one of perception, say Colton, Tanner, Shorstein and Smith, as the right to self-defense already existed as a proven legal concept.
"Now there's just a new jury instruction," Smith said. "This doesn't create a new defense as much as it just validates something we've been arguing for years."