TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (CN) – Changes made two years ago to Florida’s controversial “stand your ground” self-defense law that switched the burden of proof cannot be applied retroactively, the state’s high court ruled Thursday.
The long-anticipated ruling affects several Floridians who face charges after losing their initial “stand your ground” hearings, in which they had to prove they were acting in self-defense when using force.
Two years ago, the Legislature modified the law so prosecutors had to prove the accused were not entitled to immunity – a much higher bar.
In a unanimous decision, the Florida Supreme Court found Thursday that the 2017 changes to the law apply to immunity hearings, including in pending cases, occurring after the statute’s effective date.
If the accused already had an immunity hearing before the law took effect, he or she should not receive another one, the justices ruled. In cases where the offender has not yet received a hearing, or the hearing occurred after the 2017 legislation but the trial court did not consider the new rules, the updated statute applies.
The high court decided to hear the case after two state appellate courts came to different conclusions on whether the updated “stand your ground” law applied retroactively.
In one case, Tashara Love claimed self-defense after shooting a man who allegedly attacked her daughter outside a Miami-Dade County nightclub in 2015. She was arrested for attempted second-degree murder with a firearm.
She lost her immunity hearing and appealed to the Third District Court of Appeal, which ruled the 2017 changes did not apply to her because her charges occurred before the law was amended.
In another case involving Tymothy Ray Martin, who was convicted of felony battery charges in 2016, the Second District Court of Appeal ruled the changes do apply retroactively.
The disparate decisions prompted then-Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi to submit a brief asking the state Supreme Court to intervene.
“There are many criminal defendants asserting stand your ground claims that arose before the stand your ground amendment’s operative date, but whose cases remain pending,” Bondi wrote. “Those fortunate enough to pass through the Second District will enjoy the benefit of the new pro-defendant burden of proof, while those with cases in the Third District must labor under the old standard.”
The high court found both appellate courts did not correctly apply the new law.
Love’s immunity hearing took place after the 2017 statute took effect, so the trial court should have applied the new burden-of-proof standard, the justices found.
Chief Justice Charles Canady wrote in the 29-page opinion the amended statute “is a procedural change in the law and applies to all stand your ground immunity hearings conducted on or after the statute’s effective date.”
Since Martin’s immunity hearing and conviction occurred before the new statute took effect, it should not apply retroactively.
“The legislation on its face is plainly forward-looking,” Canady wrote, adding the Legislature did not intend to undo prior immunity hearings.
Justices Ricky Polston, Jorge Labarga, Alan Lawson and Carlos Muniz concurred.
The confusion over the amended law caused many cases to grind to a halt, including the high-profile fatal shooting of a theatergoer by a retired police captain after an altercation over texting during a movie.
In 2014, Curtis Reeves and his wife arrived at a movie theater and sat behind 43-year-old Chad Oulson and his wife to watch “Lone Survivor.” Oulson checked his phone during the previews, prompting Reeves to ask him to put it away because the light was distracting him.
The argument heated up and Oulson tossed popcorn at the retired officer’s head. Reeves leaned back, took out a pistol and shot Oulson in the chest, killing him.
During his immunity hearing, Reeves maintained Oulson also hurled his cellphone at Reeves, possibly threw a punch and then towered over the older man, frightening him enough to shoot.
But Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Susan Barthle did not buy it and denied immunity after the March 2017 hearing – just months before the new law took effect.
Reeves, 77, is still on house arrest awaiting trial. The presiding judge postponed the case until the Supreme Court made a decision on retroactivity.
Reeves’ attorney, Richard Escobar, did not respond to a request for comment Thursday.