Florida Court Allows Felon Illegally Possessing A Firearm To Invoke Stand Your Ground Law

Although possession of a firearm by a convicted felon is illegal, it does not prevent a defendant from invoking the state’s Stand Your Ground law, a Florida appeals court ruled. A three-judge panel held that the controversial law immunized Aaron A. Little from second-degree murder charges, after he shot dead a man who threatened him during an encounter on the street.

The Stand Your Ground law, which gained notoriety after the tragic killing of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin, authorizes the unfettered use of deadly force in self-defense. One provision of the law explicitly limits the use of deadly force without a duty to retreat to those “not engaged in an unlawful activity.” But the judges held that this provision need not apply, because other provisions are silent on whether or not the activity must be lawful.

Little’s particular self-defense probably could have been justified under other, less expansive self-defense laws because he both attempted to retreat and entered his home, protected in many states by the “Castle Doctrine” (although there is no evidence that he or others at the scene attempted to call law enforcement).

But this is not required by Florida’s Stand Your Ground law, modeled after ALEC and NRA-backed language that has now been adopted by at least 15 other states, and declaring that a person “has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground” to prevent great bodily harm or even the commission of a felony. This decision, if upheld would ostensibly allow individuals to claim immunity for deadly force even if used while committing a crime. The intermediate appeals court will not have the final word on this question, as the judges asked the Florida Supreme Court to review the case. But the court is not entirely to blame for this perverse result. The statute is confusing, to say the least, and the court rightly states that a statute should be interpreted most favorably to the accused. The best solution to this problem — in addition to more stringent background checks at both the state and federal level — may be through the state legislature, which has thus far declined to make any substantive changes to the law, in spite of significant empirical evidence that the law is dangerous and ineffective.