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Justices weigh police ‘stand your ground’ defense

Attorney General Pam Bondi’s office this week urged the Florida Supreme Court to overturn a ruling that allowed a police officer to use the state’s “stand your ground” self-defense law after being charged with manslaughter in an on-duty shooting.

Bondi’s office, in a 22-page brief filed Monday, argued that Broward County sheriff’s deputy Peter Peraza was not legally entitled to claim immunity under “stand your ground” in the 2013 shooting death of Jermaine McBean. Instead, the brief argued, officers can seek a more-limited type of immunity under another part of state law.

The Supreme Court agreed in February to take up the case, after Bondi’s office appealed a ruling by the 4th District Court of Appeal. That ruling upheld a circuit judge’s decision that Peraza was entitled to immunity from prosecution under “stand your ground” and that his use of force was justifiable.

The legal battle stems from an incident in which Peraza received a report of a man walking down a street openly carrying a gun. Peraza and another officer pursued the man and ordered him to stop and drop the weapon, the appeals-court ruling said. The man did not drop the weapon, leading Peraza to fatally shoot him. The weapon turned out to be an air rifle.

Peraza was indicted on a charge of manslaughter with a firearm but successfully used a “stand your ground” defense. Under the law, a circuit judge held a pre-trial evidentiary hearing before siding with the deputy’s arguments.

“The circuit court found that the officer’s account of the incident was consistent with the other credible witnesses’ testimony and the physical evidence,” the appeals court ruling said, summarizing the decision. “The (circuit) court then found, by the greater weight of the evidence, that the man (McBean) ignored repeated warnings to stop and drop the weapon, turned towards the officers, and pointed his weapon at the officers, causing the officer (Peraza) to be in fear for his life and the lives of others, prompting the officer to shoot at the man, resulting in the man’s death.”

The controversial “stand your ground” law says people are justified in using deadly force and do not have a “duty to retreat” if they believe it is necessary to prevent death or great bodily harm. When the defense is successfully raised in pre-trial hearings, defendants are granted immunity from prosecution.

But in the brief filed Monday, Bondi’s office argued that police incidents are subject to another part of state law that can provide what is known as “qualified” immunity. Under such a scenario, the officer would not receive a pre-trial hearing that could lead to dismissal but would be able to raise self-defense arguments at trial, according to the appeals court ruling.

Bondi’s office said police officers have never had a duty to retreat and that the “stand your ground” law granted the “average citizen the right to stand his or her ground.”

“It makes no sense to apply this statute to officers who have always had the right to stand their ground,” the brief said. “Thus, permitting an officer, to elect an absolute immunity over qualified immunity bypasses the statute specifically designed for this scenario and renders (the law dealing with qualified immunity) meaningless.”

But Peraza’s attorneys, in a document filed at the Supreme Court in January, said the laws “coexist.” They wrote that a police officer could raise a “stand your ground” defense in a pre-trial hearing and, if unsuccessful, make arguments under the qualified-immunity law at trial.

“This case needs to be examined through the practical realities of policing,” Peraza’s attorneys wrote. “To follow the petitioner’s (attorney general’s) argument would allow an average citizen to assert immunity whereas a law enforcement officer who took an oath to uphold the law, to serve and protect, and whose duty entails running toward danger rather than from it, would not be able to avail him or herself of such a defense.”

The News Service of Florida provides journalists, lobbyists, government officials and other civic leaders with comprehensive, objective information about the activities of state government year-round.

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