Court rules Florida’s new Stand-Your-Ground law is unconstitutional

A major defeat for the NRA.

FILE — In this Sept. 13, 2016 file photo, George Zimmerman looks at the jury as he testifies in a Seminole County courtroom in Orlando, Fla. CREDIT: Red Huber/Orlando Sentinel via AP, Pool
FILE — In this Sept. 13, 2016 file photo, George Zimmerman looks at the jury as he testifies in a Seminole County courtroom in Orlando, Fla. CREDIT: Red Huber/Orlando Sentinel via AP, Pool

Last month, Gov. Rick Scott (R-FL) signed a controversial update to the “Stand Your Ground” law, which put the full impetus on prosecutors to disprove a self-defense claim during a pre-trial hearing.

The updated legislation was supported and promoted by the National Rifle Association, who said that it was merely a clarification on the true intent of the “Stand Your Ground” law when it was enacted in 2005. Previously, it was up to defendants to prove that they used force in self defense.

But on Monday, Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Milton Hirsch ruled that the update was unconstitutional, because of the process used to update the law — it should have been done through the Supreme Court, not the legislature according to Florida’s constitution.

“As a matter of constitutional separation of powers, that procedure cannot be legislatively modified,” Hirsch wrote.

The “Stand Your Ground” law has been controversial since it was first passed. It was central to the jury’s not-guilty verdict in the case of George Zimmerman, a former neighborhood watchman who was acquitted of the murder of Trayvon Martin, the unarmed black teenager who Zimmerman shot and killed in 2012.

The ruling by Hirsch is considered a victory for prosecutors and gun control advocates, who believe that the updated law Scott signed last month forced prosecutors to essentially try the case twice, once at the pre-trial hearing and then again during the trial. The law requires prosecutors to prove that the defendant was not acting in self defense by showing “clear and convincing” evidence.

The ruling is based on two cases in Hirsch’s court — that of Liletha Rutherford, a woman who pulled a gun on a couple during an argument and is now accused of aggravated assault; and the case of Omar Rodriguez, who shot and killed a neighbor after an argument over dog poop.

Both trials will continue, but Rutherford and Rodriguez will have to prove that they used force in self defense.

Hirsch’s ruling is expected to be challenged in appellate courts and will likely head to the Florida Supreme Court.

This piece initially said that the “Stand Your Ground” law was used as George Zimmeran’s legal defense. While the law was part of the jury instructions and considered by jurors during deliberations, his lawyers did not request an official “Stand Your Ground” hearing. We regret the error.