Self-Defense

Did the Florida Supreme Court Just Give Cops More Leeway to Kill With Impunity?

The decision says a police officer, like any other Florida resident, has a right to a pretrial hearing on his self-defense claim.

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On Friday the Florida Supreme Court confirmed that police officers as well as other citizens are immune from prosecution under state law when they legally use deadly force in self-defense. Under Florida's "Stand Your Ground" self-defense law, that means they are entitled to a pretrial hearing testing their self-defense claim before prosecutors can go to trial.

The New York Times reports that the decision gives "broader immunity to law enforcement officers" and "could make it harder to hold police criminally responsible in disputed shootings." It says the ruling "would allow police officers in some cases to avoid jury trials in controversial shootings in which officers believed they were acting in self-defense but might have had other options." The Times notes that "the 2005 law eliminates a person's duty to retreat from a dangerous situation and frees them to use deadly force 'if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary' to prevent harm or death."

That gloss is misleading, because this case did not hinge on the absence of a duty to retreat, which in any event would not apply to Florida police officers even without the Stand Your Ground law. The case involves Peter Peraza, a Broward County sheriff's deputy who was charged with manslaughter after a 2013 incident in which he shot and killed Jermaine McBean, who was carrying an air rifle as he walked down the street in Oakland Park, a town near Fort Lauderdale. Peraza and other deputies were responding to a 911 call about a man with a gun. According to the Florida Supreme Court, the caller said McBean, who "had been hospitalized a week earlier after experiencing a mental breakdown," "appeared distraught and was acting in an aggressive manner."

At his pretrial hearing in 2016, Peraza testified that McBean ignored repeated commands to drop the "weapon" and instead pointed it at the cops. "I've never been so scared in my life," Peraza said, adding that he saw McBean as a threat not only to him and his colleagues but to "women and children in the pool area" of McBean's apartment complex, which he was approaching. "Although one witness testified that McBean did not point the weapon at the deputies," the Florida Supreme Court said, the judge overseeing the pretrial hearing "rejected this testimony and resolved all factual disputes consistently with Deputy Peraza's self-defense theory."

It turned out that McBean, who had just bought the camouflage-colored air rifle at a pawnshop and was heading home with it, was listening to music through earbuds that may have prevented him from hearing the cops' commands. But Peraza said he did not know any of that at the time and took the action he thought was necessary to protect himself, his colleagues, and the bystanders. The judge agreed that McBean had shown it was more likely than not that the shooting was justified and therefore dismissed the manslaughter charge.

The state appealed, arguing that the relevant law in this case is a 1974 statute that says a police officer "need not retreat from efforts to make a lawful arrest because of resistance" and is "justified in the use of any force" when he "reasonably believes" it is "necessary to defend himself or herself or another from bodily harm while making the arrest." Note that the cop-specific law already eliminated the duty to retreat for police officers, decades before the Stand Your Ground law did that for anyone else attacked in a public place. In any case, the duty to retreat did not figure in Peraza's confrontation with McBean, who according to testimony that the judge accepted was pointing what appeared to be an actual rifle at the sheriff's deputies (although Peraza was the only one of the three who fired his gun in response). For Peraza, the crucial difference between the 1974 law and the Stand Your Ground statute is that the latter grants immunity from prosecution, which entails a right to a pretrial hearing, as opposed to a defense that can be used at trial.

An appeals court concluded that a police officer in Peraza's situation can take advantage of either law or both, and the Florida Supreme Court agreed. The more general self-defense law, it noted, applies to "a person" who "reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another" Since a police officer is "a person," the court said, a straightforward reading of the law indicates that Peraza had a right to a pretrial hearing on the self-defense issue.

Contra the Times, the decision does not give police officers any more leeway than they already had to use lethal force when they have "other options." Rather, it allows them, like any other Florida resident, to assert a self-defense claim prior to trial. When Peraza had his pretrial hearing, defendants had the burden of proving by "a preponderance of evidence" that their use of force was lawful. If a defendant can meet that test, it logically follows that prosecutors could not have proven him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt at trial. The hearing allows a defendant with a strong self-defense claim to avoid the cost, stress, and inconvenience of a full trial.

In 2017 Florida legislators changed the rules for self-defense hearings, requiring prosecutors to prove "by clear and convincing evidence" that the defendant's use of force was unlawful. There is no statutory basis for letting everyone but police officers take advantage of that option. Nor would that be fair. Too often it seems that cops who kill benefit from a double standard. The right response to that problem is not to reverse the inequality but to insist on the same standard for anyone who claims to have used lethal force in self-defense.

[This post has been revised to correct the location of the shooting.]

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33 responses to “Did the Florida Supreme Court Just Give Cops More Leeway to Kill With Impunity?

  1. Citing the NYT? Sad.

    On the reality side of life, the cops will have a harder time with pre-trial stand your ground hearings, as they are trained professionals. What is wrong with cops using ‘real laws’? Maybe, just maybe, in the future this will lead to ‘real laws’ being used against cops. Asset forfeiture becomes theft absent charges and conviction?

    1. If you’d RTFA, you’d have noted he debunks the NYT scarum.

      Contra the Times, the decision does not give police officers any more leeway than they already had to use lethal force when they have “other options.” Rather, it allows them, like any other Florida resident, to assert a self-defense claim prior to trial.

      1. A citation to debunk is still a citation. Do. not. do. that.
        It just encourages them.

        More along the lines – In an unreliable reference from a large liberal city paper . . .

        1. – “A citation to debunk is still a citation. Do. not. do. that.”

          Well, that’s the dumbest thing I’m likely to read all day.

  2. I learned in college that American cops are a bunch of homicidal racists who put bullets in black bodies for no reason whatsoever, even when those black bodies are in the HANDS UP DON’T SHOOT pose. So this is terrible news, but not all that surprising considering we have a literal white supremacist President.

    1. Ever consider the fact what you learned in college was wrong? I have been out of college for about 40 years and have been amazed at our out of touch my professors and fellow students were.

      1. Read comments by OpenBordersLiberal-tarian like they were surrounded by [sarcasm] [/sarcasm] tags

        1. Translation: [God’s Own Prohibitionist] [/God’s Own Prohibitionist] tags

      2. Your sarcasm meter is in desperate need of calibration.

    2. Hah, pretty good.

  3. The right response to that problem is not to reverse the inequality but to insist on the same standard for anyone who claims to have used lethal force in self-defense.

    Unless your self defense scenario is a civilian defending himself from a state agent.

  4. Since a police officer is “a person,” the court said, a straightforward reading of the law indicates that Peraza had a right to a pretrial hearing on the self-defense issue.

    I thought we had settled this with the lawsuit over the tariffs on the X-Men action figurines – the tariffs applied to dolls, which were defined as representations of humans, and the importer argued (successfully) that X-Men were mutants and not technically humans. I’ve been given to believe that cops similarly are superheroes with super-human powers and not just regular human beings. If the courts have now determined that they are “persons”, can they start being held to the same standards as the rest of us mere mortals?

    1. Anyone who does not understand that all humans are mutants is an idiot.

    2. Since a police officer is “a person,” the court said, somehow with a straight face…

  5. I see no reason cops should not have the same rights as other citizens.

  6. Everyone wringing their hands worried how new technologies and laws will be used against them.

    The nonviolent technical solution is available but the hand wringers are frozen in fear.

    We need a law that recognizes our right to record what we witness anywhere we are. If we’re allowed to be there, to record what we see and hear anyways.

    Then we can use convenient micro recording devices that store the recordings safely offsite in the cloud where a warrant would be required for police to access them.

    People, everyone, would learn damned fast to play nice with others as statements would be easily and objectively corroborated or refuted.

    It would save a shitload of time resolving conflicts both in and outside of court.

    1. “People, everyone, would learn damned fast to play nice with others as statements would be easily and objectively corroborated or refuted.”

      I think the volume to outstretched hand, phone-captured media of people misbehaving tends to refute the proposition that everyone would start behaving nicely. Moreover, I don’t see how a “private” surveillance state helps secure the social fabric more than it is or could be harmful.

      1. Phones are inconvenient ant occupy the hands and concentration.

        A constantly running or easily activated, dedicated micro recording device would only record what you were already looking at and listening to, leaving both your hands and concentration free.

        They aren’t available because the corrupt already have laws in place to make recording your memories illegal in enough places to guarantee their corruption cannot be demonstrated.

        I’m talking about the right to record what are already our own – memories.

        Does me looking at you constitute surveillance? Are you wearing a burka?

  7. The Florida stand-your-ground pretrial hearing is of benefit only to one who presents a clear cut case where the judge as the “reasonable person” stand-in would agree that he would have been in fear of death of greivous bodily harm if standing in one’s shoes.

    NYT has misrepresented FL SYG for years.

    According to the database I saw posted at the Tampa Bay Times based on the Florida cases they collected, blacks are 30% of the SYG cases (while 15% of the FL population) and are about as likely to prevail as as white SYG defenders (2 of 3 claimants cleared by pretrial hearing). Since blacks are about twice as likely to be crime victims, it is not surprising they are very likely to be self defenders and less likely to afford to defend themselves in court. SYG disproportionately benefits black crime victims.

  8. “According to the Florida Supreme Court, the caller said McBean, who “had been hospitalized a week earlier after experiencing a mental breakdown,” “appeared distraught and was acting in an aggressive manner.”

    And surely the cops verified the accuracy of the 9-1-1 call, which appears to be the sole basis in determining how dangerous the man was, except for the man’s obvious failure to immediately prostrate himself before his betters. Did I miss the case that explicitly made that an immediately executable offense or when cops started totally believing anything a civi says.

    Apparently 9-1-1 callers are to be taken as indisputably factual until cops determine they need to independently escalate situation circumstances. This guy was essentially swatted on a public street. I thought the Stand Your Ground Law did not apply to those that initiated criminal violence without provocation. If only the gun shop had bigger bags.

    “…the Florida Supreme Court said, the judge overseeing the pretrial hearing “rejected this testimony and resolved all factual disputes consistently with Deputy Peraza’s self-defense theory.”

    On what basis? Two out of 3 deputies not firing would strongly indicate the threat level was not sufficient because when do cops shy away from letting some lead fly? The truth is that the killer deputy did not want to be mercilessly taunted later for failing to fire. Peer pressure, real or imagined, kills.

    1. – “And surely the cops verified the accuracy of the 9-1-1 call, which appears to be the sole basis in determining how dangerous the man was, except for the man’s obvious failure to immediately prostrate himself before his betters.”

      That’s an impressive amount of stupidity you’ve managed to pack into a single post. Did you not bother to read the piece you’re commenting on, or are you simply so illiterate that you failed to understand…

      “Jermaine McBean, who was carrying an air rifle as he walked down the street”

      …and…

      “McBean ignored repeated commands to drop the “weapon” and instead pointed it at the cops.”

  9. The deputies who did not fire should be given commendations for showing good judgment and restraint and the shitbag killer deputy Peraza should have to present the awards to them.

  10. You’re carrying a weapon unholstered down a city street and you have ear plugs in so you have zero situational awareness? Jeez, of course you get shot. What were you expecting?

    1. Don’t tell me… lemme guess… I’ll take “Initiation of deadly force” for $100. After all, the guy was black, and in Florida, no less! I almost forgot… add asset-forfeiture of the bb gun and content of the victim’s wallet for the Republican Police Union Beneficent Association.

      1. – “After all, the guy was black…”

        …and carrying a rifle, and ignoring commands to drop it, and…

        Lies by omission are the most reprehensible types of lies.

  11. Equal Rights, is Equal Rights.
    LE should have the same rights as non-LE – No More, No Less.

  12. The right response to that problem is not to reverse the inequality but to insist on the same standard for anyone who claims to have used lethal force in self-defense.

    That implies that to “reverse the inequality” citizens shoud not just have guns, like cops do, but other weapons and tools as well.

    Which raises the issue not just of the cops but also of the National Guard when used by a state governor in law enforcement. If the National Guard deploy MRAPs, assault rifles, grenades, and machine guns should the citizenry be allowed access to such things to?

    And if the answer is YES, then the next step of the Guard against a citizenry so armed would be to counter that threat and deploy (say) tanks and helicopter gunships. If that does happen should the citizenry have access to tanks and gunships of their own?

    In other words, how is it possible to “reverse the inequality” when government forces have access to weaponry, anf classes of weaponry, no citizen will EVER have?

    If not, how is equality between cops/National Guard on the one hand & citizens on the other possible at all?

    1. We really only need enough weaponry to acquire more should the need arise.

  13. More lethal leeway than that? Maybe the court could order bailiffs to hand a cash bounty to officers killing anyone darker than a Seminole OR listening to audiobooks. Prosecutor Crissy could be hired away from Seneca and locals pass an ordnance like the one in Salt Lake City where Bron got paid leave for shooting unarmed Dillon Taylor in the back for listening to an audiobook while young. Next the First Responders? and their looter minions’ll act all surprised when an identical whack job decides two can play.

  14. I’m perfectly fine with SYG laws apply to cops, because despite their attempts to think otherwise they’re civilians and members of the public too.

    But if SYG will cover them, then qualified immunity has to be off the table. They can’t claim they have an absolute right to self defense and court imposed immunity due to status of being government officials.

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