Last Friday, Florida Gov. Rick Scott signed into law HB89, a bill that does quite a bit to plug some holes in Florida’s self-defense laws. Mainly, the bill makes it clear that Florida’s self-defense laws, such as the no-duty-to-retreat law (otherwise known as “stand your ground”), are equally applicable to defensive threats of force as they are to actual force.
In other words, warning shots are finally okay in the eyes of the law in Florida, which just makes sense, if you think about it. After all, if it is acceptable under the law to kill or injure someone under the scope of self-defense and the no-duty-to-retreat laws, threatening to injure or kill someone should be acceptable under the law as well.
Of course, that’s not all the bill does. In the past, there has been a statutory minimum sentence for “imperfect self-defense,” a situation in which a person sincerely believes that he or she is being threatened, but that belief is unreasonable. Under the law, someone who wages “imperfect self-defense” is still guilty, because the self-defense defense doesn’t apply. HB89 waives the statutory minimum sentence, which could sometimes be as much as 20 years. So now, the court is free to sentence using the more usual sentencing considerations, as long as the court does not find that the attack took place in the course of the defendant committing another crime. Also, the court must find that the defendant does not pose a threat to public safety.
All of this came about, in part, because of the Marissa Alexander case. In that case, the jury was told, among other things, that self-defense “is a defense to the offense with which [Alexander] is charged if the injury to Rico Gray Sr. resulted from the justifiable use of deadly force.” Those instructions meant that the absence of injury meant no self-defense, so Alexander was convicted and given a sentence of 20 years in prison.
In Alexander’s case, the Florida Court of Appeal overturned the conviction and held that Florida law allowed self-defense as a defense even when there was no injury inflicted, but the statute helps clear that up to prevent another case like Alexander’s case from happening the way it did.
Part of the problem in Alexander’s case, and in other cases, is that the instructions given out to jurors by the Florida Supreme Court provides the wrong information. These instructions contain the “injury” language, erroneously, and such instructions are often challenged on appeal on the grounds that they do not properly summarize the relevant statues or precedents. A fix to the jury instructions might have taken care of this problem; the Florida Supreme Court is already reviewing the self-defense instructions in light of this case. With HB89, though, we can be pretty certain that those jury instructions will be revised promptly.