The other day at an event I was speaking at the issue of Stand Your Ground was asked. I wanted to share with you a recent piece I wrote and was published in the Seminole Chronicle on this topic. You can view the piece on the Seminole Chronicle website BY CLICKING HERE. Here is the entire text of the piece.
Stand Your Ground Needs Transparency
By Ryan Vescio | August 22, 2012
Six months ago, Florida’s Stand Your Ground law was something that we prosecutors argued and debated in courtrooms across this state, and most citizens knew about it only if they were the victim of or alleged to have committed a crime of violence. Due to everything that has occurred here in Seminole County, discussion of this law has reached from our dinner tables to the highest levels of government.
The concept of self-defense has been an important and necessary legal principle since the creation of our criminal justice system. Whether on a playground, in a dark alley or in an argument with a sibling, all persons should be allowed to protect themselves against imminent harm. The question we now face is whether the law of good intention passed by the legislature has led to unattended consequences.
At its essence, questions about self-defense and whether Stand Your Ground applies comes down to credibility. The current law requires investigating law enforcement officers, prosecutors, and if asked, judges to decide whether a potential suspect “reasonably believe[d] that such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the imminent commission of a forcible felony,” according to Section 776.012(1) of the Florida Statutes.
The determination of reasonable fear is something that a criminal jury has decided in self-defense trials prior to the Stand Your Ground law. Juries sit as neutral representatives of our community to determine cases and controversies. What is important is that juries have been presented this information in the light of a courtroom, with all parties and the public present to ensure the fairness of the presentation of information. I have trusted juries throughout my career as a prosecutor to make the right decision and I trust juries to make the right decision about Stand Your Ground and self-defense issues.
The application of the Stand Your Ground law has taken this presentation of information and evidence out of the light of the courtroom and placed it within the closed doors of the police or sheriff’s station. Law enforcement officers and prosecutors across our state work hard to seek justice fairly.
However, this change has led to a decline of the public’s trust that these decisions are being made based upon all the known facts and without the intervention of inappropriate influence.
If a law enforcement agency decides that Stand Your Ground applies in a case and does not make an arrest, there is no requirement that the investigation be submitted to the State Attorney’s Office for a second review, as is done in other types of cases. In these cases, a second review by the State Attorney’s Office would establish a layer of transparency so that everyone understands why decisions are made and to preserve the public trust in government, law and justice.
When decisions are made in the dark and not subject to review, the potential for an incomplete decision or review is present. It is near impossible to ever determine if these decisions are based upon something other than the facts and law. However, the perception of fairness of our criminal justice system is even more important than whether our system is actually fair. We have an obligation to rebuild public trust in our criminal justice. By requiring a second review of these cases, we will increase public trust in the fairness and equality of our criminal justice system.