An African American man was fatally shot in the parking lot of a Florida convenient store after an argument broke out over a handicapped parking spot. Surveillance video showed the alleged altercation.
According to reports, a woman pulled into the handicapped parking spot. Her boyfriend and their five-year-old son got out and went into the store while the woman remained in the car. A short time later, a white man pulled up, exited his vehicle, and looked at the back of the woman’s car, which did not have a handicapped license plate. He proceeded to get into a verbal altercation with the woman. When her boyfriend noticed the confrontation, he rushed out and pushed the white man, causing him to fall to the ground. While still on the pavement, the white man pulled a gun and shot the black man. The father of three young children died at an area hospital.
The shooter alleged that he feared for his life, However, surveillance video of the incident shows the victim backing away when the white man drew his gun.
The shooter was not arrested because of Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law (SYG) Under the law, someone is justified in using deadly force if they “reasonably believe” it is “necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm.” Apparently, all a shooter had to do was claim that he ‘feared for his life.’ Does it matter that the store owner said the white man routinely took it upon himself to self-police the handicapped parking spot? Does it matter that the shooter initiated the confrontation with the woman? Does it matter that the black man only engaged the shooter after he, clearly, frightened the woman and two small children in the back seat? Under SYG-Florida, the burden of proof is on the prosecution. Prosecutors will need to provide “clear and convincing evidence” that the man, who owned the gun legally and possessed a concealed carry permit was not justified in his use of deadly force. How can the prosecution prove what the shooter was or was not thinking? Cross-examination of the shooter (assuming he takes the stand) and/or his past behavior will be key elements.
Florida’s SYG law was first adopted in 2005. It gained national attention following the 2012 shooting death of Trayvon Martin, the unarmed teen shot by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer. Since Florida’s SYG law went into effect, more than half of the states have adopted some form of ‘stand your ground.’
Advocates for SYG laws say such legislation allows good people to defend themselves. However, researchers have found that states with SYG laws actually have more homicides than states without such laws.
Texas A&M University researchers looked at state level crime data from 2000 to 2009 in Florida and the 22 other states that had passed some form of an SYG law. Their study found that after passing the law, states saw a 7 to 9 percent jump in murders and non-negligent manslaughters. A Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) study made the same claim. The JAMA research showed there was an “abrupt and sustained increase in the monthly homicide rate of 24.4 percent” and a 31.6 percent jump in firearm homicides each month. More importantly, the homicide rate among African-Americans increased 32 percent, from 36 deaths each month to 48. Despite these facts, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush defended the law.
My issue with these SYG laws is that they give untrained and unprofessional citizens the same power as trained and experienced policemen and women. A ‘frightened’ citizen (reasonably or unreasonably) is granted police power and discretion with questionable accountability under the law. Doesn’t this encourage a citizen to use deadly force where a cop might have exercised discretion? Did this black citizen’s reasonable and measured defense of his family deserve the equivalent of the death penalty, without a judge or jury deciding his fate?
In my opinion, ‘Stand Your Ground’ laws send a message to our citizens to shoot first and ask questions later. Is this the America we want, a country that encourages street justice? How many Trayvon Martins have to die before we stop giving untrained citizens an “I shot the guy, but I felt threatened and had a reasonable basis for fearing injury to myself” get out of jail free card? We are better than this and our citizens deserve better. That’s my opinion; what do you think?
Attorney, certified civil mediator, and award-winning author of the Zachary Blake Betrayal Series. Mark Bello is also a member of the State Bar of Michigan, a sustaining member of the Michigan Association for Justice, and a member of the American Association for Justice.