FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - A task force examining Florida's "stand your ground" self-defense law was told Thursday that the Trayvon Martin shooting is one example of the law's ambiguity and the potential unintended consequences it has created.
"What we've discovered is, in a drug deal gone bad, people die, and this is the defense," Buddy Jacobs, general counsel for the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association, told the 18-member panel. "Our conclusion is that this law ought to be repealed. We don't think it's a thing we can tweak."
The 2005 law is under nationwide scrutiny following the Feb. 26 shooting in Sanford of the unarmed, 17-year-old Martin by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman. Martin's family and supporters want Zimmerman arrested, but police say they were prevented from doing so because of the law. At least 20 other states have similar stand your ground laws.
The task force organizer, state Sen. Chris Smith of Fort Lauderdale, said the 7-year-old law has been controversial in past cases and likely will be again long after the Martin case has faded from national attention.
"It did not begin and it will not end with the Trayvon Martin case," said Smith, a Democrat. "There is a lot of misconception and misunderstanding around the state. It can lead to dangerous incidents."
The task force — which includes prosecutors, defense attorneys, police executives and politicians — could advocate repeal or specific changes or decide not to make recommendations, Smith said. It's unclear whether the Republican-controlled Legislature would consider any of its proposals, particularly since GOP Gov. Rick Scott has pledged to appoint his own task force after the Martin investigation is complete.
Scott has appointed a special prosecutor to determine whether to bring charges in the case, which has become a racial flashpoint and led to demonstrations around the country attended by thousands of people. Martin was black and the 28-year-old Zimmerman's father is white and his mother Hispanic. Zimmerman's family insists he is not a racist.
The law allows use of deadly force to prevent "imminent death or great bodily harm," and it removed a person's duty to retreat in the face of such peril that was required in a previous self-defense law. The change was strongly backed by the National Rifle Association, which has been pushing similar legislation in other states.
In Florida, police on the scene must decide whether there's sufficient evidence not to make an arrest when a person claims self-defense under the "stand your ground" law, which is why Zimmerman has not been charged in the Martin case. If a person claiming self-defense is charged, there's a hearing before a judge, not a jury, to decide whether the case goes forward.
Michael Satz, chief prosecutor in Broward County, said most instances cited by the law's proponents — such as an armed carjacking or home invasion — were covered by older self-defense laws.
"No one is trying to take self-defense away from anyone," Satz said. "I don't think it was necessary to pass 'stand your ground.'"
The panel also heard from a number of citizens on both sides. Supporters generally said it served to protect the innocent from criminal predators.
"You're never going to legislate bad things away," said Mike Schlichtig, of Fort Lauderdale. "Don't take away innocent people's rights to protect themselves. It is not an excuse to be a vigilante."
Others, however, said the law was confusing and prone to misuse, particularly because it's often difficult to sort out the attacker and the potential victim. Prosecutors say this often happens in gang violence, when the facts are murky.
"When does the aggressor turn into the person being threatened?" said Ed Phillips of Pompano Beach.