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Standing your ground: Florida's bad example

New Hampshire will have to endure without live performances from Stevie Wonder from now on. Or at least until we repeal our stand-your-ground law. Wonder is boycotting states that have such laws. In the days since George Zimmerman's acquittal, more substantial figures than Stevie Wonder, such as U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, have taken to criticizing or protesting stand-your-ground laws in general, as though all of them are the same as Florida's. They are not, which is tremendously important to understand. New Hampshire's law, in particular, is far better than Florida's.

New Hampshire's stand-your-ground law contains this critical phrase: "nor is the use of deadly force justifiable when, with the purpose of causing death or serious bodily harm, the person has provoked the use of force against himself or herself in the same encounter."

In New Hampshire, you cannot pick a fight, use deadly force and then claim self-defense under the stand-your-ground law. Amazingly, that is not the case in Florida.

Florida's law contains a provocation exception, but it carves out exceptions to the exception. In Florida, if you have initiated a confrontation, but during the confrontation you come to believe that your life is in danger, you can legally use lethal force.

In the real world, that means you can initiate a fight or pursue an opponent, kill that opponent, then claim self-defense. And that does happen. A Tampa Bay Times review of the state's stand-your-ground cases found that in "nearly a third of the cases the Times analyzed, defendants initiated the fight, shot an unarmed person or pursued their victim — and still went free."

Florida's law also grants immunity from criminal prosecution, including arrest, to anyone who claims self-defense. Police can make an arrest only if they have probable cause that the self-defense claim is untrue, but if the claim is upheld later the state has to pay court costs. That has created a strong disincentive to arrest anyone who claims self-defense.

Under Florida's stand-your-ground law, there have been many cases of Florida drug dealers and gang members shooting rivals, claiming self-defense, then walking. One drug dealer has killed two rivals and gotten off.

Florida's law is seriously flawed. But it is not New Hampshire's law. Those who use Florida's example to argue for ending all stand-your-ground laws are either ignorant or being deliberately misleading.

Eric Church
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