In a landmark decision, Florida’s State Supreme Court ruled Thursday that its police officers can use the state’s “stand your ground” self-defense law. In doing so, officers will be able to shield themselves from prosecution in instances involving disputed shootings.
In its ruling, the court determined that police officers have the same rights as other Florida citizens who win immunity from prosecution under the law, according to the New York Times.
Lawyer Eric Schwartzreich, who successfully argued that police officers shouldn’t be excluded from the protections that “stand your ground” offers, was elated at the news.
“It’s a landmark, ground-marking case,” he said. He recently represented a sheriff’s deputy who was involved in the fatal shooting of a black man. “It’s the first time Stand Your Ground is used in the state of Florida in reference to police. The implications are wide-ranging.”
According to legal analysts, the ruling could allow police officers to avoid jury trials entirely if fatal shootings occur and the offending officer believes they were acting in self-defense. Despite the availability of alternative options.
In explaining it’s decision, the Court stated, “Put simply, a law enforcement officer is a ‘person’ whether on duty or off.”
“Police officers already have full immunity to kill us at will,” said Tiffany Burks, a Black Lives Matter Alliance Broward activist. “This is an extra bonus on top of that. It really is a slap in the face — a blatant one at that.”
The case that triggered this landmark decision involved the 2013 killing of Jermaine McBean, a mentally ill computer engineer who was walking down a street in Oakland Park with an air rifle slung across his shoulders.
As he entered his apartment complex screaming to himself, witnesses called the police.
Three Broward County sheriff’s deputies arrived on the scene and ordered him to relieve himself of the rifle. However, McBean—who apparently didn’t hear them due to the music he was listening to in his earbuds—failed to do so.
Peter A. Peraza, the deputy charged in the case, claimed that McBean then turned and pointed the rifle at the officers so he fired three shots, killing him. But witnesses assert that McBean never pointed the weapon.
Two years later, Peraza was eventually indicted—becoming the first law enforcement officer to be charged in an on-duty killing in Florida in decades.
Peraza requested Stand Your Ground protection in court and won, but the state appealed. However, the Fourth District Court of Appeal upheld it, but since the decision conflicted with a prior appellate ruling, the case then went to the Florida Supreme Court.
David I. Schoen, who is representing McBean’s family in a federal civil rights lawsuit, expressed his own concerns about the ruling.
“Every unscrupulous law enforcement officer in Florida who kills a civilian now in suspicious circumstances will say he feared for his life, and even with eyewitnesses saying otherwise, he walks and can’t be arrested or charged or brought to trial after this decision,” he said. “It’s an injustice, it really is.”
He also noted that the ruling places too much decision making-power on elected local judges, who often depend on support from police unions to win elections. Additionally, invoking Stand Your Ground under these circumstances could mean that juries will be denied the opportunity to consider disputed evidence.