Local lawyers weigh in on controversial ‘Stand Your Ground’ law

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A hotly contested issue that has sparked nationwide debate, the “Stand Your Ground” law has drawn both ire and praise from constituents on both sides of the political spectrum. 

Ruth Ann Hepler, a lawyer who works at Janet E. Johnson, P.A. in Jacksonville, offered her perspective on the controversial law in a recent interview with the Recorder and explained how it compares to other laws. Florida became the first state to enact a “Stand Your Ground” law on Oct. 1, 2005. 

"You're allowed to defend yourself," she said. “In the street, the old common law concept was that you have a duty to try and retreat before using force. “Stand Your Ground” basically says if you're out in public, you no longer have to retreat."

An important component of the law is that gun owners carrying a concealed weapon must discern whether lethal force is justifiable.

Lisa Varon, who has practiced law for 20 years and works at Fallgatter & Catlin, P.A. in Jacksonville, said she recently worked a case in which her client responded to a punch to the face by shooting his assailant several times. One of the arguments against him was that the amount of force her client used was not proportional to the threat he faced. Although “Stand Your Ground” allows people to meet deadly force with deadly force, an excessive response to a threat can lead to trouble, Varon said.

"Just because somebody attacks you doesn't mean you get to shoot them," Varon explained. "If that person had used a weapon then I would say you’re entitled to use deadly force, because that person was using what was considered deadly force."

Varon said her client felt he was at a disadvantage, that his life was in jeopardy and the force being used against him was deadly.

Before “Stand Your Ground” was established, Hepler noted that Floridians had a right to defend themselves. She echoed the sentiment, however, that lethal force must be used only in life or death situations.

"If somebody calls you a bad name, you can't shoot them," she said. "Ultimately, it all comes down to the question of was it reasonable? Were you reasonably in fear that the person was going to kill you or seriously injure you?"

Furthermore, Hepler asserted that it can be difficult for jurors to interpret whether “Stand Your Ground” applies in certain situations. 

"You don't put it into a computer and ask the computer to give you an answer," she said. "You can have six jurors say it was reasonable, and the next day six different jurors say it wasn't reasonable. That's how the law works in our country."

According to Varon, it would be more difficult to interpret whether someone sufficiently retreated under common law than whether lethal force was justified. 

"If I've got a client who is saying they used self-defense and that's why they did something," she said, "it's much easier now because there is no duty to retreat and they can stand their ground and they can fight back.”

What makes “Stand Your Ground” unique, Hepler noted, is that the initial determination of whether lethal force was appropriate can be made as a preliminary matter by a judge. If a shooting is deemed reasonable under certain circumstances, a person can be declared immune from prosecution and never get a jury trial. Traditionally, each case would have to be brought before a jury.

"If the judge says you were within your rights, you're immune from prosecution," she explained. "You're free."

Another important component of legal and lawful self-defense is the Castle Doctrine, which allows for lethal force during a home invasion. 

“If somebody attacks you in your own home, the concept is you're allowed to meet force without having to retreat,” Hepler said.  “You don't have to run into your bathroom and lock yourself in. You can meet force with force right there.”

With “Stand Your Ground,” Hepler explained that concealed carriers can meet lethal force with lethal force — just like a home invasion.

For more information on Hepler and Varon, visit www.fallgatterlaw.com and www.janetejohnsonlaw.com.

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