Jail Officer Who Severely Beat Inmate Can Invoke Stand Your Ground, Court Rules

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A former corrections officer who beat a prisoner in his jail can invoke Florida’s Stand Your Ground law to argue that he is immune from criminal charges, a Florida appeals court ruled Friday.

The ruling potentially extends claims of total immunity for all civil and criminal charges under the state’s notorious Stand Your Ground law to corrections officers acting in the course of their jobs. Defendant Brad Heilman was a prison guard at Lake Correctional Institute in Clermont, Fla. who allegedly caused multiple facial fractures to Duane Royster during a severe beating. Heilman was fired over the incident, and charged with aggravated battery.

But Heilman invoked the Stand Your Ground law to argue that Heilman imposed the violence in self-defense and had no duty to retreat, even though he was operating as an employee inside a jail. A separate Florida law governs when corrections officers are entitled to use force, and includes its own self-defense provision. But Heilman’s lawyers successfully argued that this statute did not preclude him from seeking total immunity under Stand Your Ground.

“When you add this new statute, which speaks in broad terms, it says ‘any person’,” said Heilman’s lawyer David Redfearn, noting that it does not preclude corrections officers invoking the statute. While a court has already ruled that police officers cannot invoke the defense because another provision of the Stand Your Ground law specifically deals with police, Redfearn and his colleagues successfully persuaded a court that the same is not true for prison and jail staff.

“The primary focus of our analysis has been to discern legislative intent,” Judge Thomas Sawaya concluded, reasoning that Florida lawmakers did not intend a separate provision concerning corrections officers to preempt use of the Stand Your Ground provision.

The state may still seek a re-hearing in the case, and the ruling may still be appealed to the Florida high court. But if the decision stands, it will entitle Heilman to a hearing solely on the question of Stand Your Ground immunity. He must still argue before a judge that he is entitled to Stand Your Ground protection, despite the unique setting inside a jail and the unequal power dynamic between inmates and corrections officers.

Like police officers, corrections officials already enjoy broader protection from criminal and civil charges than the general public, because of the particular dangers inside correctional facilities. The Florida law that authorizes corrections officials to use force in certain contexts includes a provision allowing an officer “to defend himself or herself or another against such other imminent use of unlawful force.” The trial court held that this statute does not prohibit Heilman from also availing himself of the Stand Your Ground law. If Heilman is granted immunity at a Stand Your Ground hearing, he will never have to go to trial on the charge.

Other Florida court rulings have held that individuals can invoke Stand Your Ground immunity even when they use an illegal gun or are barred by the law from possessing a gun. And those who have been granted Stand Your Ground immunity in Florida include a man who went back to his car to get a gun, and another who shot an acquaintance for threatening to beat him up.

While attempts to repeal Florida’s Stand Your Ground law have failed, bills advancing in the Florida legislature would expand Stand Your Ground to warning shots, make records about Stand Your Ground cases secret, and make the legal process even easier for defendants.