The Impact of the Threatened Use of Force Act on 10-20-Life

HB 89, the “Threatened Use of Force Act,” which the Florida legislature passed and Governor Rick Scott signed in 2014, amends Florida’s “10-20-Life” law. Here’s what you need to know about this new law and its impact on gun sentencing in Florida.

BEFORE HB 89

Until HB 89 became law, aggravated assault was subject to a three-year mandatory minimum sentence if a firearm was displayed during the commission of the act, and a 20-year mandatory minimum sentence if a firearm was discharged during the commission of the act. Meanwhile, Florida has granted its citizens broad self-defense rights through laws like the Castle Doctrine and “Stand Your Ground.” The result of broad self-defense rights coupled with mandatory minimum sentences for gun crimes was that otherwise law-abiding citizens were being arrested, prosecuted, and sentenced to mandatory minimum prison sentences for acting in what they perceived to be self-defense or defense of a third party. For examples, see Lee Wollard, Ronald Thompson, and Erik Weyant.

HB 89

CS/HB 89, the “Threatened Use of Force Act,” was sponsored by Representative Neil Combee (R, Polk) and Senator Greg Evers (R, Pensacola). Governor Scott’s “Task Force on Citizen Safety and Protection,” which studied Florida’s self-defense and sentencing laws, issued its final report in February 2013. Among its “core recommendations,” the Task Force recommended that “the Legislature review Florida’s 10-20-Life law to eliminate any unintended consequences.” HB 89 was intended was intended to implement that recommendation.

Specifically, HB 89 was intended to address two problems. First, Florida’s self-defense law allowed the actual use of force in self-defense, but not the threatened use of force. The result was that if a person actually shot an attacker, the law protected that act as self-defense. But displaying a firearm or firing a “warning shot” was not similarly protected. HB 89 corrected this gap by explicitly protecting the threatened use of force in situations where the actual use of force would have been justified.

Second, HB 89 was intended to restore judicial discretion in aggravated assault cases where self-defense is a colorable issue. While the Senate Judiciary Committee voted to remove aggravated assault from 10-20-Life (thus eliminating the mandatory minimum for aggravated assault with a firearm), the final bill kept the mandatory minimum in place, but established a “safety valve.”

Here is the language of HB 89’s safety valve:

[T]he sentencing court shall not impose the mandatory minimum sentence required by [10-20-Life] for a conviction for aggravated assault if the court makes written findings that:

(a) The defendant had a good faith belief that the aggravated assault was justifiable pursuant to chapter 776.

(b) The aggravated assault was not committed in the course of committing another criminal offense.

(c) The defendant does not pose a threat to public safety.

(d) The totality of the circumstances involved in the offense do not justify the imposition of such sentence.

Finally, HB 89 makes a number of important findings that do not carry the force of law, but do highlight the intent behind the bill. Among them, the legislature “encourage[d] those who have been sentenced to a mandatory minimum term of imprisonment pursuant to s. 775.087, Florida Statutes, for threatening to use force in a manner and under circumstances that are justifiable under chapter 776, Florida Statutes, to apply for executive clemency.”

AFTER HB 89

What does the Threatened Use of Force Act mean going forward?

First, because the threatened use of force is now explicitly protected by law, people who fire “warning shots” and can show they were acting in self-defense will not be subject to arrest or prosecution.  

Second, if someone is arrested and prosecuted for aggravated assault, but claims self-defense, that person can claim immunity from prosecution based on the threatened use of force.

Third – and most importantly – if someone is convicted of aggravated assault with a firearm, the sentencing judge will have discretion over the sentence imposed if the judge makes the findings above. If a judge makes each of the relevant findings, the mandatory minimum is inapplicable, and the judge may impose any sentence otherwise applicable by law.

Importantly, nothing in HB 89 is retroactive. That means the safety valve and the other reforms apply only to cases that occurred after the bill became law on June 20, 2014.

If you have any questions about 10-20-Life, HB 89 or mandatory minimums in Florida, please contact FAMM’s State Policy Director, Greg Newburn, by email at gnewburn@famm.org or by phone at 352.682.2542.