House ready to back 'stand your ground' change

- A change in how "stand your ground" self-defense cases would be handled in the courts moved closer Tuesday to advancing out of the House, despite suggestions by critics that it could allow criminals to get away with murder.

But with the House expected Wednesday to approve the bill (SB 128), an amendment Tuesday will send the measure back to the Senate for further consideration.

The Senate last month approved the bill, which shifts a key burden of proof from defendants to prosecutors in pre-trial hearings in "stand your ground" cases.

House sponsor Bobby Payne, R-Palatka, defended his proposal, rejecting Democratic contentions that the shift in burden of proof could end murder cases before they go to trial.

"I have more confidence in our prosecutors, I have more confidence in the resources they have, to get to those that truly are criminals," Payne said.

The proposal, backed by groups such as the National Rifle Association and the Florida Public Defender Association, stems from a Florida Supreme Court ruling in 2015 that said defendants have the burden of proof to show they should be shielded from prosecution under the "stand your ground" law.

In "stand your ground" cases, pre-trial evidentiary hearings are held to determine whether defendants should be immune from prosecution. The bill would shift the burden from defendants to prosecutors in the pre-trial hearings.

The "stand your ground" law has long been controversial. It says people can use deadly force and do not have a duty to retreat if they think it is necessary to prevent death or great bodily harm.

Senators voted 23-15 to approve their version of the bill, with Miami Republican Anitere Flores joining Democrats in opposition.

The House change approved Tuesday would require prosecutors in "stand your ground" cases to overcome the asserted immunity through "clear and convincing evidence." The Senate bill set the standard as being "beyond a reasonable doubt."

Prior to the House floor session, the Democratic caucus unanimously agreed in a voice vote that it will oppose the measure when it comes up for a vote Wednesday. Other opponents include the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association and the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

"This is not about someone's right to defend themselves," said Minority Leader Janet Cruz of Tampa. "It's not about Jim Bob carrying his gun and feeling protected, and feeling strong. It's about intimidation. It's about activities that go on in some neighborhoods that tell perhaps a gang member that it's OK to go kill another member."

The bill is one of several measures supported by the NRA, Florida Carry or other Second Amendment groups that will be up for votes Wednesday in the House.

One measure (HB 779), for example, would reduce penalties for people who have concealed-weapons licenses and briefly display firearms in public.

The proposal, sponsored by Rep. Neil Combee, R-Auburndale, would change what is currently a second-degree misdemeanor charge --- carrying a fine up to $500 and 60 days in jail --- into a $25 noncriminal violation that can be paid to county clerks of court. The fine would grow to $500 on the second offense and back to a second-degree misdemeanor upon the third charge.

A similar proposal (SB 646) in the Senate has been held up in the Judiciary Committee where Flores, a top lieutenant to Senate President Joe Negron, has become a roadblock for some high-profile gun measures.

The House is also expected to vote Wednesday on a measure (HB 849), also by Combee, that would allow private religious schools to decide if people with concealed-weapons licenses can carry firearms on campus.

Rep. Jared Moskowitz, D-Coral Springs, said the proposal has come about because of growing concerns about security issues at a number of churches and temples and that, of all the gun bills filed this year, "this is probably the least offensive of all of them."

The Senate version (SB 1330) was backed in a 6-3 vote on Monday after Flores amended it to specify that the concealed-carrying could occur only outside school hours or during school-sanctioned activities.

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