Post Date: March 17, 2014
(The Florida Times-Union Guest Column) — There is something wrong with our laws when a person who kills another in self defense may escape prosecution while a person merely threatening to use force is sent to prison.
Yet this is exactly what’s happening as an unintended consequence of Florida’s 10-20-Life laws.
Under Florida’s current self-defense law, the use of deadly force is justified when a person reasonably believes it is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself, herself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.
Only the actual use of force is justified in such situations. Firing a warning shot to scare off an attacker is not justified under the law.
The law’s omission of protections for the threatened use of force has led to wrongful prosecutions for self-defense.
Most notably, people have been charged with aggravated assault because they perceived a threat and responded by threatening force through either the defensive display or discharge of a firearm.
Under Florida’s 10-20-Life law, aggravated assault by displaying a firearm carries a three-year mandatory minimum sentence. If you fire that gun, the sentence goes up to 20 years.
CASES IN POINT
Without a legislative fix, we will continue to incarcerate otherwise law-abiding Floridians.
Lee Wollard fired a shot into the wall of his home to scare off his daughter’s boyfriend after he punched her. After turning down an offer of probation, he was convicted and sentenced to 20 years. He is not scheduled for release until 2028.
Erik Weyant fired a gun into the air to scare a group of men who surrounded his car and were threatening to beat him. He’s serving 20 years, too.
Ronald Thompson, a 67-year-old disabled veteran, fired two warning shots into the ground to scare off a group of boys threatening his elderly neighbor. He was sentenced to 20 years.
Marissa Alexander is facing 60 years in prison on three aggravated assault charges for firing a weapon to scare her abusive husband.
A bill making its way through the Legislature is designed to fix this problem. HB 89 protects the threatened use of force in legitimate self-defense situations.
IMMUNITY FOR WARNING SHOTS
Instead of providing immunity only for the actual use of force — as the status quo requires — this proposed reform would protect individuals from prosecution if they display a firearm or discharge a firearm for purposes of fending off an attack.
In any situation in which actual force is currently justified, HB 89 would also protect the threatened use of force.
While we agree that the discharge of a firearm to warn a potential attacker is not a responsible use of firearms, we also believe that the law should not encourage someone to shoot to kill when they can merely threaten to use force to stop an imminent attack.
Further, we believe that by protecting the threatened use of force, some might be able to deter a threat without killing a perceived attacker. Anyone who aims to reduce deaths in self-defense situations should welcome this change.
If HB 89 becomes law, people who display or discharge a firearm to deter the threat of death or great bodily injury will be immune from prosecution.
They won’t be subjected to harsh, indefensible 20-year prison sentences under 10-20-Life.
10-20-Life is being applied in cases never anticipated by the law’s original proponents and is resulting in outrageous and arbitrary prison terms for otherwise law-abiding citizens.
HB 89 will restore the original intent of 10-20-Life and prevent overzealous prosecutions of Floridians.
Rep. Katie Edwards, D-Plantation, and Rep. Mia Jones, D-Jacksonville, are members of the Florida House. Read the column