TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) - The House passed a bill Wednesday that would make Florida the first state in the country to place the burden of proof in "stand your ground" pretrial hearings on the prosecution rather than the defendant.
The House voted 74-39 after an hour-and-a-half of debate over the expansion of the law that's been a source of contention since it was first enacted in 2005.
Right now defendants are required to prove at a pretrial hearing they were acting in self-defense to avoid a trial on charges they committed an act of violence. The bill would require prosecutors prove at a pretrial hearing that someone wasn't acting in self-defense once a defendant makes the self-defense claim.
The measure goes back to the Senate, which passed it last month, after the House changed language in the bill. The Senate bill originally said prosecutors have to prove "beyond a reasonable doubt" that a defendant wasn't acting in self-defense. The House changed that language to the lower threshold of presenting "clear and convincing evidence."
Supporters argued that the bill simply protects the presumption of innocence until proven guilty as provided in the U.S. Constitution.
But Democrats argued that the original stand your ground bill is already flawed and has led to more violence. They also said self-defense immunity hearings have disproportionately helped white defendants accused of attacking blacks rather than black defendants who have sought immunity after being accused of attacking whites.
"Flipping the burden of proof will only lead to more deaths and violence. It incentivizes individuals to permanently silence the only potential witness against them," said Democratic Rep. Bobby DuBose. "Flipping the burden of proof will do nothing more than increase the carnage that this legislation has unleashed on our communities."
While Democrats said the bill will lead to people getting away with murder, Republicans said that's not the case.
Republican Rep. James Grant said the "clear and convincing evidence" threshold is much easier for prosecutors to prove.
"If the government cannot beat the lesser easier burden in an immunity trial, then they darn sure can't meet beyond and to the exclusion of each and every reasonable doubt when they ask for a conviction," he said. "This bill will make it easier to claim immunity. This bill will not make it any easier to get immunity."
Republican Sen. Rob Bradley is sponsoring the measure in his chamber. He said he will review the House language before deciding whether to ask the Senate approve it.
While at least 22 states have similar laws that say people can use even deadly force to defend themselves from threats, Florida could be alone shifting the burden to prosecutors. Only four states mention burden of proof in their "stand your ground" laws - Alabama, Colorado, Georgia and South Carolina - and all place the burden on defendants.