A Florida judge has ruled that a new provision in the state’s “Stand Your Ground” law is unconstitutional because the legislature overstepped its rightful authority when it increased protections for defendants in self-defense cases.
Earlier this year the Florida legislature passed an amendment to its 2005 SYG law. The amendment stated that the prosecution carries the burden of proof in pre-trial hearings of self-defense incidents. According to the updated law, prosecutors have to provide “clear and convincing” evidence that a defendant was not using force as an act of self-defense.
Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Milton Hirsch ruled on Monday that the amendment is unconstitutional, stating, “As a matter of constitutional separation of powers, that procedure cannot be legislatively modified.”
The Florida legislature passed the amendment in response to a 2015 decision by the Florida Supreme Court. In that decision, the court held that defendants are not innocent until proven guilty in pre-trial hearings. Defendants must prove their innocence with evidence that suggests the shooting was legal self-defense.
Judge Hirsch found that the changes to the law were “procedural,” meaning only the Florida Supreme Court has the right to make them, as they did in 2015.
Hirsch’s decision doesn’t overturn the law, but it does begin the process that could end with another decision by the Florida Supreme Court.
Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, told the Miami Herald he believes the legislature acted lawfully and the appeals process won’t reach the highest court in the state.
“I would be surprised if this decision were upheld at the appellate level,” said Bradley, a former prosecutor who championed the amendment in question.
Prosecutors were vehemently opposed to the “Stand Your Ground” modification, arguing that the law would require them to try the case twice and make it easier for criminals to skate on violent charges. Since the defendant is asking for immunity from prosecution, they argue, the defendant should be required to prove they acted in self-defense.
“The state would be proving the case twice,” Republican Senator Anitere Flores said at the time of the amendment’s passage. “There’s a strong concern that many more defendants will invoke the Stand Your Ground defense because they know it will shift more work onto the state attorneys on the front end.”
But the amendment’s proponents argue that the state should not draw a distinction between seeking immunity at pre-trial hearings and pleading innocent at the trial itself.
“What this bill does, senators, is put the burden of proof where I would, respectively, suggest it should rightfully be,” said Sen. Bradley in May. “From the beginning of a criminal case to the end, [it] is with the state, and that the standard of proof [should] be beyond a reasonable doubt.”