Florida Supreme Court Clears Path for Civil Action on ‘Stand Your Ground’ Claims

(CN) – A person declared immune from criminal prosecution under Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law can still face a civil action, the Florida Supreme Court ruled on Thursday.

The unanimous decision is yet another twist in the interpretation of one of the state’s most controversial laws.

The case at issue grew out of a 2008 bar fight in Tampa between Ketan Kumar and Nirav Patel. According to court documents, Kumar attacked Patel without provocation and Patel defended himself by striking Kumar with a glass, which ultimately blinded him in the left eye.

Prosecutors charged Patel with felony battery, but he claimed self-defense under the “Stand Your Ground” law, which allows a person to use force against an attacker before trying to retreat. A Hillsborough County judge granted Patel immunity.

Kumar responded with a civil suit accusing Patel of battery and negligence. Patel petitioned Florida’s Second District Court of Appeals, arguing his immunity from criminal prosecution extended to civil lawsuits as well. The appellate court agreed. But the decision was in conflict with an earlier appellate ruling from the state’s Third District Court of Appeals.

In its decision Thursday, the state Supreme Court said the law “is silent as to the procedure to be used for determining immunity.” However, the statute does have separate language dealing with attorney fees for civil and criminal cases, which the justices interpreted as the law requiring separate immunity hearings.

In addition, an amendment to the Stand Your Ground law passed earlier this year creates different burdens of proof for criminal and civil immunity – another sign lawmakers meant for separate hearings.

“The legislature … did not suggest procedural mechanisms for invoking and determining Stand Your Ground immunity,” Justice C. Alan Lawson wrote. “Necessarily, those procedures are being developed by the judiciary.”

In a phone interview with Courthouse News, Patel’s attorney Stephen Romine shared his disagreements with the ruling.

“Either you’re immune or you’re not,” Romine said, adding the problems for his client began when lawmakers amended the law.

Romine disputes the justices’ mention of civil attorney fees as a rationale for needing separate hearings, because criminal statutes don’t have language allowing defendants to sue the state for wrongful prosecution.

Romine also pointed to other case law that prevents a person from relitigating issues already dealt with by a criminal court.

“There are so many statements of law by the courts that run counter to the reasons in this opinion,” he said.

The Stand Your Ground law first received national attention after the shooting of unarmed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin by neighborhood watch leader George Zimmerman.

Many saw the shooting as racially motivated (Martin was black; Zimmerman is Hispanic) and expressed outrage when Zimmerman was acquitted.

A 2012 study by the Tampa Bay Times found the law had been invoked more than 200 times since its inception and allowed 70 percent of those accused to walk free. Gang members and drug dealers were among those who never faced murder charges, the study said.

But pro-gun advocates like the National Rifle Association have praised the laws, which more than half of the country has enacted over the last decade.

This most recent decision reflects a frustration by judges across the state over the law’s lack of clarity. In this year’s amendment to law, lawmakers switched the burden of proof from the accused to the prosecutor in criminal cases.

That revision caused two Miami circuit judges to declare the law unconstitutional. Other judges, while not addressing the law’s constitutionality, have ruled that the changes do not apply to pending cases, setting up the state’s appellate courts for more battles over the law.

“You can call it a bit of legislative rambunctiousness,” said Tampa attorney Michael Maddux, who is representing Kumar along with Thomas Burns, who also has a practice in the city. “We see that Stand Your Ground has been so elastic that the Florida Supreme Court is willing to check what it’s doing to other cases.”

Maddox and Burns said they intend to pursue the civil lawsuit.

“[Patel] can’t deny our client the opportunity to pursue civil justice,” Maddox said.

In addition to Romine, Kimberley Kohn of the Tampa-firm Goudie & Kohn also worked on Patel’s case.

“They couldn’t have picked a worse factual case to decide this on,” Romine said, defending Patel’s actions against Kumar. “It’s unfortunate for my client to have to go through the time and cost associated with litigating this again.”

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