Exclusive: 'Stand Your Ground' Battle For Law Enforcement Could Head To Florida Supreme Court
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MIAMI (CBSMiami) -- Should a police officer be allowed to use the 'Stand Your Ground' defense?
That's a question the Florida Supreme Court might soon decide to answer and it could have a major effect on police involved shooting cases statewide. The issue stems from a manslaughter case where Broward Sheriff's Deputy Peter Peraza was charged with shooting and killing Jermaine McBean with an air rifle.
The manslaughter case against Peraza and the defense used by his attorneys could have a groundbreaking effect on the way law enforcement officers fight criminal charges stemming from deadly encounters while making an arrest.
In Peraza's case, a judge and an appeals court found that the 'Stand Your Ground' law protected Peraza from prosecution after the deputy shot and killed Jermaine McBean in 2013. McBean was carrying an air rifle and Peraza said McBean pointed it at him and other deputies, causing Peraza to open fire. McBean's family and their attorney allege that since McBean was wearing earbuds he probably did not hear commands from deputies to put the air rifle down.
Late last year, Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi weighed in. Her office, in a legal brief filed in the Florida Supreme Court, argued Peraza should not have been able to use 'Stand Your Ground' because it wasn't the intent of lawmakers. The brief also says that police officers are given qualified immunity rather than the absolute immunity that 'Stand Your Ground' affords and having the option to choose between those two types of defenses is a privilege not afforded to average citizens. In the agency's brief, the AG's Office asks Florida's Supreme Court to decide the matter.
Eric Schwartzreich believes lower court judges already made the correct decision in the case. Schwartzreich represents Peraza and was hired by the Police Benevolent Association. He says the 'Stand Your Ground' law says that "any person" can use it and a police officer is certainly a person.
"The fact that they would not be able to take protection of the 'Stand Your Ground' law, it would be asinine. No one would want that," Schwartzreich said. "Our officers need to know that they're not going to be indicted. They're not going to go to prison for protecting us and that they're not going to be facing murder charges."
Schwartzreich also says the arrest and indictment of Peraza placed a chilling effect on law enforcement officers trying to do their jobs. He believes 'Stand Your Ground' is an appropriate defense for anyone forced to defend themselves.
But others, like Rhonda Felder, who sits on the 'Stand Your Ground' Committee for the Black Lives Matter Alliance of Broward, worry that if the Peraza case is affirmed, it could embolden police officers to use blanket Stand Your Ground immunity as a defense and they'll be more likely to engage in deadly force.
"We're talking about a professional who should be trained in de-escalation," Felder said. "Who should be trained in hand to hand, some kind of self defense. We don't think deadly force should be the first recourse. The law as it is written right now is just open season."
She and others worry a change like this could give police a default knee-jerk response of saying they felt afraid in a situation and had to take deadly action.
"If the Supreme Court says that this is the way it's going to be in the State of Florida, I think it's going to affect tourism," she said. "I think it's going to affect us all the way down the line. We can't have a shoot to kill mentality."
Schwartzreich believes those concerns are overblown.
"People are not going to go around giving people a pass if they are murdering our civilians," he said, "Society's not going to stand for that."
CBS 4 News reached out to the Florida Attorney General's Office for comment on their legal brief but we were told that because this is still a pending matter they are unable to comment. We also reached out to a spokesperson for the Florida Supreme Court regarding when justices might decide whether to take up the issue. The spokesperson said justices are constantly reviewing cases and have not yet decided whether to hear this one.
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