By Jim Manfre
My classmates shuffled nervously into our first law school class, Torts, taught by the aged Professor Fagan. He was an image out of The Paper Chase: tall, austere, and a shock of white hair outlining a serious and somewhat threatening gaze. His booming voice announced how he would criticize the unwary victim of his Socratic questioning.
After the mandatory explanation of his expectations for the class, he unwound himself from his high-back leather chair and approached an unsuspecting student in the front row. The student apparently did not have the good sense to hide in the relative safety of the back rows.
Fagan demanded from the student the legal definition of a battery. Before the student had a chance to respond, the professor grabbed the student’s arm and shook it for a second. He then questioned the stunned student as to whether he had committed a battery based on the common law definition. Not waiting for a response, the professor demanded if the student had raised his arm to release the professor’s grip and struck the professor in the eye–would that be a battery, or would it be permitted by the common law definition of self-defense?
The reason I mention this episode from my early days in law school is that it encapsulates a law’s purpose. A law should clearly and concisely explain its intent and be based on common sense notions of human behavior. In this instance Professor Fagan was explaining the law of battery and self-defense in a way that was understandable to any lay person. We inherently understand the bounds of human behavior and realize quickly when the actions of others are outside those boundaries. We do not need statutes to interpret this behavior for us.
Having tried over thirty criminal cases as a prosecutor, I observed that juries or judges most times found their way to the right conclusion by applying the law to the facts.
The stand your ground law as passed by Florida under Gov. Jeb Bush under the influence of the National Rifle Association clarifies for law enforcement the extent to which a person can defend himself when a person enter his home, automobile or boat. Previous to this law, there was confusion as to whether a person could only use force on an intruder based on the type of force used to enter the home, boat or vehicle.
The castle doctrine, as it is called in stand your ground, allows a person to use deadly physical force in these situations regardless of whether the intruder has a weapon or not. I believe this clarification has assisted law enforcement and finders of fact in determining whether a person used force properly in defense of his person or family in these instances.
Where I believe stand your ground confuses the public, law enforcement, judges and juries is in the reference it makes to F.S.S.776.013 (3) (See the law below) that a person has no duty to retreat and force may be used, including deadly physical force, if the person is not engaged in unlawful activity and is attacked and “he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so.”
What this stand-your-ground language requires is that law enforcement, prosecutors, judges and juries enter the mind of the person to determine if he acted properly rather than rely on what a reasonable person would have done in those circumstances. Self-defense is now what the person at the time believed, rather than common sense community standards. The worst part, other than the confusion created in the criminal justice system, is that it has emboldened certain people to act irresponsibly out of a false sense that this law protects them.
Clearly this sentence in stand-your-ground should be changed back to what a reasonable person would do in the situation rather than requiring law enforcement to attempt a Vulcan mind-probe to decipher the actor’s–or perpetrator’s–state of mind. More importantly, the public’s valid concern over the vigilante-style actions of certain people who have watched too many Western movies should be dealt with through legislative action.
It is the duty of the Legislature to enact laws that make sense, and when dealing with public safety, to enact laws that enhance the protection of the public. There are too many instances where this stand-your- ground language has emboldened criminal behavior rather than prevented it, or has failed to restrain violent physical reactions to what would otherwise have been a loud verbal altercation.
Jim Manfre, an attorney, was elected Flagler County Sheriff in November 2012. He also served as sheriff between 2001 and 2005.
Justifiable Use of Force: Florida Statute 776.013 Home protection; use of deadly force; presumption of fear of death or great bodily harm.—
A person is presumed to have held a reasonable fear of imminent peril of death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another when using defensive force that is intended or likely to cause death or great bodily harm to another if:
(2) The presumption set forth in subsection (1) does not apply if:
(5) As used in this section, the term: