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New ‘Stand Your Ground’ hearing rejected in shooting case

Adding to divisions about the effect of a 2017 legislative change, a South Florida appeals court Wednesday rejected arguments that a man convicted of manslaughter should receive a new hearing under the state’s “stand your ground” self-defense law.

The 2017 legislation shifted a key burden of proof in “stand your ground” cases from defendants to prosecutors. But Wednesday’s ruling by the 4th District Court of Appeal and rulings by at least two other appellate courts have split on whether the change should apply retroactively to defendants whose cases were pending at the time the legislation took effect. The Florida Supreme Court has agreed to take up the retroactivity issue in a Miami-Dade County case from the 3rd District Court of Appeal, though justices have not scheduled arguments.

Wednesday’s ruling from the 4th District Court of Appeal in a Palm Beach County case agreed with the conclusion from the 3rd District Court of Appeal that the 2017 change should not apply retroactively. The 2nd District Court of Appeal, however, took the opposite stance in a Hillsborough County case.

The “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.

Before the 2017 change, the Supreme Court had ruled that defendants had the burden of proof in pre-trial hearings to show they should be shielded from prosecution. But the legislation shifted the burden from defendants to prosecutors to prove whether self-defense claims are justified — a shift that could help at least some defendants.

Wednesday’s appeals-court ruling stemmed from the manslaughter conviction of Ronald Hight Jr., who fatally shot Craig Rivera during an altercation at a party. Hight argued that he should be shielded from prosecution because of the “stand your ground” law, but a circuit judge rejected the argument after a pre-trial hearing. Hight appealed his conviction, and the Legislature approved the 2017 burden-of-proof change during the appeal. He argued that the change should be applied to his case, but a three-judge panel of the appeals court rejected the argument.

“In conclusion, we find that the amendment to the Stand Your Ground law, which occurred during the pending appeal and contained an effective date of June 9, 2017, created a new legal burden by changing both the burdens of persuasion and proof and therefore was substantive in nature and did not apply retroactively,” said the ruling, written by appeals-court Judge Spencer Levine and joined by judges Dorian Damoorgian and Jeffrey Kuntz.

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