Last month, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that the state’s controversial “stand your ground” statute applies to police officers, just as it does to civilians. The ruling radically expanded the boundaries of justifiable homicide to grant police immunity from arrest, criminal prosecution, and a jury trial when they claim—even in spite of overwhelming contradicting evidence—to have killed in self-defense. This modification represents the latest in a steadily creeping distortion of justice that intensifies the “shoot first, ask questions later” logic of weaponized self-defense.
The case in question concerns the July 2013 shooting death of 33-year-old Jermaine McBean by Broward County Sheriff’s Deputy Peter Peraza and a subsequent police cover-up to make the victim appear retroactively to have been an urgent threat. McBean, a black computer engineer with no criminal record, had purchased an unloaded air rifle at a pawn shop four blocks from his home in Oakland Park and was carrying it home while listening to music through his earbuds. When McBean did not immediately respond after three deputies approached from behind and commanded him to stop, Peraza shot and killed him, later claiming to have acted in self-defense.
“Stand your ground” makes it very difficult to dispute even the most outrageous claims of self-defense. Drafted by a consortium of conservative lawmakers and gun lobbyists, Florida’s statute became the first of its kind in 2005, stipulating that a law-abiding person has no duty to retreat from a perceived threat wherever they may legally be. As Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick explained, “stand your ground” laws stretch the traditional Castle Doctrine beyond the boundaries of the home, allowing you to “bring your castle wherever you go.” On the surface at least, the laws appear to grant all law-abiding persons permission to use lethal force, without first trying to retreat, in order to protect themselves from a threat. When civilians claim to have killed someone because they were in fear for their lives, a judge at a pretrial hearing may rule that their fear was reasonable, in which case they escape arrest and prosecution.
But time and an accumulating archive of evidence shows that, in spite of their apparent race and gender neutrality, “stand your ground” laws intensify existing injustices while making already criminalized populations more vulnerable. As Jamelle Bouie put it, the law “redistributes police power to ordinary citizens,” making civilians more likely to use force in confrontations that could have been resolved through less violent means. Recent social science, public health, and legal research demonstrates that the laws increase homicide rates while amplifying the gender and race biases of our criminal justice system. “Stand your ground” laws exacerbate racial imbalances in the adjudication of homicide cases, and women who try to defend themselves from violent male partners are often denied legal immunity because their perceptions of threat are not judged to be “reasonable.” Furthermore, the ostensibly universal concept of “law-abidingness” rests in the eye of the beholder, and many beholders in this nation—civilians and law enforcement alike—perceive black and brown men, no matter how law-abiding, as threatening.
The case that resulted in Florida’s recent expansion of legal immunity demonstrates the broader dangers of these laws. After killing McBean, Peraza was indicted for manslaughter by a grand jury, amid significant protest from the police union. Such indictments are extremely rare in Broward County: Over a 35-year period in which police killed 167 civilians, Peraza was the only one indicted. In spite of the grand jury’s decision and plentiful evidence of perjury and doctored evidence, Judge Michael Usan, recently re-elected thanks to heavy support from the police union, dismissed the charges. He claimed that, as “persons,” police officers have a right to invoke “stand your ground” at pretrial hearings, even though they already enjoy significant legal immunity in cases where they use excessive force against civilians. The Florida Supreme Court affirmed Usan’s ruling, allowing Peraza to avoid the rigorous scrutiny of a jury trial.
Granting “stand your ground” immunity to police is all the more troubling given Florida’s 2017 amendment shifting the burden of proof from the defense to the prosecution. Thanks to this change, defendants who claim to have killed out of fear for their lives needn’t provide supporting evidence that their perceptions of threat were reasonable. Rather, it is up to the prosecution to prove that a defendant was not reasonably in fear for his or her life. If the prosecution can’t meet this burden to a judge’s satisfaction, the defendant walks free.
This extra layer of immunity now applies to law enforcement, guaranteeing that a police officer who kills a civilian—even under outrageously unreasonable circumstances—may claim self-defense and avoid a jury trial entirely. All the defendant must do is convince the judge at the pretrial evidentiary hearing that they killed in self-defense. The law allows a single judge to grant a defendant unilateral immunity, thus preventing a jury from ever hearing the case or assessing the evidence.
The Florida Supreme Court’s decision doesn’t just exonerate a police officer who acted impulsively and irresponsibly; it also expands “stand your ground” laws’ lethal logic of selective impunity so that those already empowered to use deadly force—including police officers—are placed comfortably beyond the reach of criminal prosecution, and even celebrated as heroes, when they take an innocent life. In Jermaine McBean’s senseless death, we witness—yet again—how the aggression-promoting ethos of “stand your ground” vindicates the perpetrators of violence while criminalizing their victims. In a culture of increasingly legalized armed hostility, we are all less safe.