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Even If You Win, You Lose

May 3, 2012 - 6:00pm

The first meeting of Gov. Rick Scotts Task Force on Citizen Safety and Protection took place on Tuesday in Tallahassee to get organized for a series of public hearings around the state in their own version of a listening tour.

And if redistricting was wild and woolly, wait until these hearings get under way.

Chaired by Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll, this panel is impressive simply because of its membership.Four state legislators (I know they all supported Stand Your Ground SYG, so what?), three criminal defense attorneys (for balance?), two sheriffs and a police chief, a former Supreme Court justice, a sitting circuit court judge, the state attorney from Miami-Dade, a public defender, and a smattering of others comprise the panel charged with making sense out of Chapter 776, F.S., which is titled Justifiable Use of Force.

Though the televised panels went 90 minutes beyond their original cutoff time, they accomplished a lot by defining their mission, drafting the guidelines that will drive the scope of work and finally adopting a schedule of hearings around the state. Their deadline is to publish their report and deliver it to the governor and Legislature before the start of the 2013 legislative session next March.

The chair began by eloquently stating that this panel is not about the Zimmerman-Martin case, nor is it about SYG, which is only one portion of the chapter under review.

She also called out the media for their willingness to side with Sen. Chris Smith, that he should be able to introduce his 15 recommendations despite the fact that the public notice for the meeting indicated that no public testimony would be allowed. This meeting was all about getting organized for the gauntlet they are about to run. And run they will.

Public testimony will start, where else but in Sanford, on June 12, followed by Desoto County, Miami-Dade, Palm Beach County, Pensacola and Jacksonville.Rep. Dennis Baxley of Ocala, the House sponsor of SYG, encouraged the group to meet in rural areas as well as urban cities because folks in the country have a decidedly different take on the successor law to the time-honored Castle Doctrine.

The panel members raised legitimate concerns starting with Okaloosa Sheriff Larry Ashley, who wondered out loud if there was a way to establish uniform guidelines for a probable cause arrest by the cop on the beat. Though this was deferred for the time being, it is obviously going to be a key issue to be resolved along with educating the public and visitors to our state about when you can successfully use the SYG defense.

Therein lies the danger, because the public needs to understand that where possible, that retreat is still the best alternative if it can be accomplished, unless of course it is in your home when you have no duty to retreat at all.

Circuit Judge Krista Marx of Palm Beach County provided the group with an overview of how the court processes work once law enforcement makes an arrest.She mentioned twice that this is the only area of criminal law where immunity from prosecution is granted upfront, albeit with the presumption on the defense rather than the prosecution. A judge can then rule whether the defendant is entitled to SYG defense and it can be appealed only to the district Court of Appeal, not beyond.

During this discussion there appeared to be a sentiment that perhaps this was too little review, at which time defense lawyer Mark Seiden, a former police officer and bloodstain instructor, made the most cogent comment of the day when he said that even if you win, you lose. Meaning that the Legislatures intent was to provide SYG defendants with quick review because the attendant publicity, significant attorney costs and just the agony of being involved in an incident where someones life is vanquished -- the defendant, even if he wins the case, still loses.

Indeed its a sad commentary on modern life. Which brings us to the heart of the debate:Should the SYG portion of the law be amended because it can be abused? Which, to me, is like saying should we amend the insanity law because a lot of defendants try to use or abuse it?Of course not.

There is nothing fundamentally wrong with the law itself because there are three levels of review, initially by law enforcement and later by a circuit court judge and then the appeals court. For most Floridians this will satisfy their definition of justice as long as people are not unnecessarily killed.

But for civil libertarians and others, it will mean that Florida, as the New York Times recently opined, is out of step with the rest of the country. This is interesting, because more than half of all of the states in the union have enacted some version of SYG.

The chair legitimately questioned the accuracy of the mainstream medias contention that this panel is biased in favor of maintaining the status quo. I found it interesting that she said she only knows the philosophical position of the four legislators, because they all had to vote on the legislation, and that she didnt know where anyone else stood.

The left will argue that with all of the law enforcement-centric members on the panel, the conclusion whether to keep the law or amend it is a foregone conclusion. I think not. Kudos to Gov. Scott for these thoughtful appointments. This is a credible collection of individuals, many of whom are officers of the court, and while they may be advocates for their cause or their client, ultimately they are the arbiters of what is right and wrong in our criminal courts.

Thats the way its been for over 200 years and we still have the fairest system of justice in the world.

This is a guest column. Barney Bishop, former CEO of Associated Industries of Florida, who recently created his third company, is an outspoken, lifelong Democrat with a strong fiscally conservative streak. He believes that government is not the answer to our problems, that civil discourse is obligatory, that compromising on details will not undercut ones core beliefs, and that a resilient, robust private sector is the elixir needed for a true democracy to grow and survive.

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