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Stand-your-ground changes advance in Senate, despite stalling in House


It's not done yet. A Senate committee today advanced NRA-backed legislation that would enhance Florida's "stand your ground" law, a day after a House committee effectively killed its version of the proposal.

Republicans on the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Criminal and Civil Justice, by a 5-1 vote, approved the bill sponsored by Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island. It would shift the burden of proof in a pretrial hearing to the prosecutor, who would have to prove why a defendant claiming self-defense isn't immune from prosecution.

Sen. Darren Soto, D-Orlando, was the lone dissent on the committee. He panned the bill as "a massive expansion of 'stand your ground' with an unprecedented burden shift."

Committee Chairman Joe Negron -- a Stuart Republican who's poised to be the next Senate president -- spoke at length in favor of it, a rare moment of debate that he said he felt compelled to do because of the importance of the legislation.

"If the state of Florida is going to accuse a citizen of committing a crime, then the state of Florida has the burden of proving at each and every part of the proceeding, to prove guilt beyond and to the exclusion of every reasonable doubt," Negron said. "You don't have to prove anything as a defendant."

But Florida's state prosecutors, as well as some victims rights advocates and a majority of the Florida Supreme Court, disagree.

The Supreme Court in a 5-2 ruling this summer said that having a defendant prove their self-defense claim when they seek to dismiss a case at a pretrial hearing is consistent with other court procedures governing motions to dismiss.

State prosecutors also argue that shifting the burden of proof to them would force them to try a case twice.

"To us, it would be a trial before a judge and a trial before a jury," said Buddy Jacobs, general counsel for the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association.

Negron, as well as Bradley, reject that argument. Negron said it comes "from people who have not tried cases."

"I would argue if you can’t convince a judge, you don’t have any business taking this in front of a jury," Negron said.

Bradley said he plans to continue pushing his bill through the Senate, despite a vote Tuesday in a House committee that stalled the House companion to his proposal.

In an unexpected result, two Republicans joined with four Democrats to defeat the House version sponsored by Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala. The House Criminal Justice Subcommittee deadlocked in a 6-6 vote. Absent a House vehicle to get the proposal through, it won't pass in the 2016 session. 

"The Senate handles its bills, the House handles their’s," Bradley said. "Everything is in play until sine die. I wouldn’t describe anything as being the end of the road."

Marion Hammer, the National Rifle Association's lobbyist in Tallahassee, echoed those remarks, although she says she was "shocked" by the House action.

"Anything's possible in the legislative process," Hammer said. "I don't have a crystal ball and I don't make predictions; I take it one step at a time."

The changes to "stand your ground" are among several pieces of legislation that the NRA and other gun-rights groups are pushing in 2016. Other bills that would allow guns on college campuses and to be openly carried in public also have more committee hearings today and Thursday.

Bradley's "stand your ground" bill now goes to the Senate Rules Committee, its last stop before it could reach the chamber floor for consideration.