Florida's Stand Your Ground law faces task force scrutiny

ATLANTA, GA - MARCH 26: Thousands of protesters rally at the Georgia State Capitol in memory of slain Florida teenager Trayvon Martin on March 26, 2012 in Atlanta, Georgia. Protests have been nationwide in reaction to the death of Trayvon Martin, the Florida teenager whose shooting by a neighborhood watch captain has led to questions of the 'Stand Your Ground' law in Florida and other states. Photo by Jessica McGowan/Getty Images

Thousands of protesters rally at the Georgia State Capitol in memory of slain Florida teenager Trayvon Martin on March 26, 2012 in Atlanta, Georgia. Protests have been nationwide in reaction to the death of Trayvon Martin, the Florida teenager whose shooting by a neighborhood watch captain has led to questions of the 'Stand Your Ground' law in Florida and other states.
Photo by Jessica McGowan/Getty Images
(CBS News) A little over two months after the death of Trayvon Martin, a Florida task force on Tuesday held its first meeting to examine the controversial "Stand Your Ground" lawthat has been at the center of the uproar surrounding the Florida teen's death.

Seventeen-year-old Martin was slain in February by George Zimmerman, a volunteer member of a Sanford, Florida, neighborhood watch, who was carrying a gun while patrolling a gated community. Zimmerman shot the unarmed teen in an apparent scuffle, claiming self defense. Due to protections granted him under the controversial Florida law, Zimmerman was not arrested for Martin's death until last month.

Florida is one of more than 20 states with a so-called Stand Your Ground law, which in that state allows a person to use deadly force against another if he or she "reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony." The Florida law also grants immunity from those who use deadly force in response to what they believe is a threat to their life.

The 19-person task force, led by Florida Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll, aims to examine Florida Statute 776, which legalizes the so-called Stand Your Ground law, as well as "other laws, rules, regulations or programs that relate to public safety and citizen protection." To do so, it plans to hold a series of public hearings and review previous cases in which the Stand Your Ground statutes were invoked. The group, comprised of attorneys, law enforcement officials, legislators, and judges, is tasked with issuing recommendations to the state legislature by its next session.

Tuesday's meeting was largely administrative, but Carroll emphasized that its purpose was not to serve as a trial for George Zimmerman.

"We're not here to try the Trayvon Martin case. That's not our scope," Carroll said in an interview with Hotsheet. She emphasized that the task force's mandate was to evaluate Florida Statute Chapter 776 with regard to its application and interpretation.

Carroll said the task force's diversity of background provided an opportunity to "really pull the onion back and say we do need to look at this."

The state-appointed task force is not the only Florida group examining Stand Your Ground statute, however.

Florida state Senator Chris Smith, a Fort Lauderdale Democrat, formed an independent task force aimed at examining the law after becoming frustrated with Governor Rick Scott's response time on the matter earlier this year. On Monday, his task force released a 21-page study issuing a series of recommendations it says should be implemented if the state's Stand Your Ground law stays in the books. 

"It's a flawed law," Smith told Hotsheet Tuesday. "Because it's flawed, it has been misused a lot in Florida."

Smith pointed to several cases in his task force's report he said showed where the law had been used to protect people from criminal activity, including gang-related acts and prostitution.

"Any reasonable person reading our report would note that, gee, we've got to do something," Smith said. "I'm confident that something can get done."

Even so, he said he had "limited faith" in the state-appointed task force to achieve real change, particularly in light of what he cast as some "political appointments" on the team. 

"I think it has some extraordinary people on there that are going to take a holistic legal view of the law. But [Scott] also has some political appointments on there," he said of the group, arguing that only one or two of its members were as familiar with the relevant criminal procedures as he thinks is necessary to take a real look at the statute.

Smith's task force, which reviewed more than 100 cases where the law had been cited, recommends that each case should be presented to a grand jury, that Florida should create a system to track self-defense claims, and that the public and law enforcement alike should be more educated about the law.

The state senator said that 12 of the 18 members in his group recommended that the law be repealed completely, but that the opposing six felt so strongly to the contrary that they elected to continue the discussion.

When asked about his own opinions with regard to repeal, Smith said he was just trying to be practical.

"I'm more of a realist," he said. "I was for what I could get done."

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