A few weeks ago, Broward Sheriff’s Office Deputy Peter Peraza was cleared of manslaughter charges in the shooting of Jermaine McBean.
But what was surprising was that Judge Michael Usan cited Florida’s Stand Your Ground law in his decision. It may have been the first time the law has been successfully used by a law enforcement officer charged with an on-duty killing.
Which raises the question: Does Stand Your Ground apply to police officers?
“It’s an interesting issue and might have to be decided by the Supreme Court,” says Frank De La Torre, who works for the Broward Public Defender’s Office and teaches a class on Stand Your Ground at Florida Atlantic University.
On one hand, the statute doesn’t use any language excluding police officers. But Florida already has a separate statute that provides immunity for cops who use force when making an arrest, and Stand Your Ground was initially intended to spare private citizens from the time and expense of a jury trial. For this reason, De La Torre believes, the legislature didn’t intend for police officers to be covered by the law.
Back in 2012, Florida’s Second District Court of Appeal ruled that Stand Your Ground did not apply to law enforcement officers. Juan Caamano, an on-duty Haines City police officer, was charged with attempted battery after he beat and tased a 63-year-old man whom he had detained at a house party. The court said he could claim immunity as a police officer but not under Stand Your Ground, and that “holding otherwise would render the specific statute meaningless.”
But De La Torre points out that it was smart of Peraza’s lawyer to claim it as a defense anyway.
“I think it was a very well-calculated risk that they took,” he says. “You don’t lose as a defendant by filing a Stand Your Ground motion — the worst that can happen is that the court denies it and you move to a trial, when you can use it again. It was a good move on their part to do so, and obviously it paid dividends for them.”
Gary Kleck, who teaches criminology at Florida State University, thinks it’s likely we’ll start seeing Stand Your Ground brought up more often in the context of police-involved shootings. “When it’s the police’s word against the suspect’s word, the judge tends to rule with the police,” he says. “But now you have more videos, which are a real tiebreaker.” In other words, if you didn’t see law enforcement officers citing Stand Your Ground before, it’s because they didn’t need to. But now that they face increased scrutiny, they’re turning to it as a defense.
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This should be a reason for concern. In 2015, the American Bar Association convened a national task force on Stand Your Ground laws and ultimately concluded that they needed major overhaul. “Basic psychological research shows that Stand Your Ground laws provide a recipe for racial bias that undermines both legal and social justice,” the final report stated.
A Tampa Bay Times investigation previously found that defendants claiming Stand Your Ground as a defense are statistically more likely to avoid prosecution if the victim they killed is black. And organizations such as the National Legal Aid & Defender Association have pointed out the huge racial disparity in how the law is applied.
David Schoen, the attorney representing Jermaine McBean’s family, calls the judge’s decision “a complete travesty.”
“It epitomizes everything that’s wrong with Stand Your Ground,” he says.