Florida Cops Win Right to Use "Stand Your Ground' Defense in On-Duty Shootings

BSO Dep. Peter Peraza was cleared of manslaughter after invoking "Stand Your Ground" in the death of Jermaine McBean.
BSO Dep. Peter Peraza was cleared of manslaughter after invoking "Stand Your Ground" in the death of Jermaine McBean. Screenshot via Florida Supreme Court/Photo by Antonia Farzan
In 2013, Jermaine McBean, a 33-year-old information technology worker, was walking home while wearing earbuds and carrying an unloaded air rifle. Someone thought the gun was real and called the cops. Broward Sheriff's Dep. Peter Peraza then killed McBean.

Peraza later claimed he was forced to kill the 33-year-old in self-defense. He cited Florida's controversial and demonstrably racist Stand Your Ground law. That was a novel and largely unheard-of use of the statute. While civil-rights advocates worried Peraza's defense set a concerning precedent, the Florida Supreme Court today unanimously affirmed that on-duty cops can claim they are "standing their ground" when killing citizens.

In layman's terms, the court ruled that, because the law gives stand-your-ground rights to all "persons" in Florida without making any distinctions for their jobs, cops can use the law to defend themselves while on duty.

"Put simply, a law enforcement officer is a 'person' whether on duty or off, and irrespective of whether the officer
is making an arrest," the court ruled. The judges also stated that Peraza was "immune from criminal prosecution."

The ruling is a victory for the National Rifle Association and Florida's top NRA lobbyist, Marion Hammer, who wrote the law in 2005. It is also a win for Florida cops and police unions, who already benefit from significant legal protections when they kill people while on duty. (It's worth noting that cops in other developed nations don't shoot civilians at even remotely the same rate as American police.)

Civil-rights advocates and public-health experts have begged the state for years to repeal Stand Your Ground. The law, which lets anyone who fears for their life shoot to kill in self-defense, was the first of its kind in America. Importantly, a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association tied the law to a "sharp, sustained" increase in homicides across the state. Murders were actually decreasing before Florida passed it.

Civil-rights groups contend the law is racist. A 2015 study showed that, in Florida, white people who claimed they were standing their ground were twice as likely to be acquitted of crimes than black people who used the law to claim self-defense.

The law is bizarre on its face: In many cases, defendants have claimed they were standing their ground when they've killed the only other witness to the crime. Florida's Trayvon Martin, for example, never got a chance to tell his side of the story when George Zimmerman killed him in 2012. (Zimmerman did not use a stand-your-ground legal defense, but a judge told the jury that, thanks to the law, Zimmerman had "no duty to retreat" during his scuffle with the teen from Miami Gardens.)

Peraza now gets to claim he was standing his ground in a case many civil-rights advocates say was a travesty from the start. Peraza says he shouted at McBean to get him to drop his air file. The cop says the 33-year-old, who was at the time also undergoing a mental-health crisis, did not comply. But McBean's lifeless body was photographed wearing earbuds: His family, to this day, wonders if he was simply listening to music and not able to hear the cop.

The Broward State Attorney's Office, the agency that prosecuted Peraza, issued a statement today saying the office was disappointed in the Supreme Court ruling.

"The Broward State Attorney’s Office has been opposed to the Stand Your Ground law since it was enacted," spokesperson Paula McMahon said. "While there was testimony from Deputy Peraza that he was in fear for his life, there was also witness testimony, as the Florida Supreme Court noted in its opinion, that 'McBean did not point the weapon at the deputies.' A grand jury heard the evidence, found that it was not a justified shooting, and chose to indict Deputy Peraza on a manslaughter charge. Stand Your Ground is a bad law, and it doesn’t allow a trial jury to hear the evidence and make a decision."
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Jerry Iannelli is a staff writer for Miami New Times. He graduated with honors from Temple University. He then earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University. He moved to South Florida in 2015.
Contact: Jerry Iannelli