DeSantis Responds to Racial Justice Protests With Expanded 'Stand Your Ground' Proposal Slammed as 'Legalized Lynching'

Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida is proposing an expansion to the state's controversial "stand your ground" law. (Photo: Gage Skidmore/Flickr/cc)

DeSantis Responds to Racial Justice Protests With Expanded 'Stand Your Ground' Proposal Slammed as 'Legalized Lynching'

"This is basically just a license for white people to kill protesters," said one critic.

This year's nationwide protests demanding racial justice and an end to police brutality--sparked by the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and other Black Americans--inspired a proposal from Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis that critics worry will lead to more bloodshed: expanding the state's controversial "stand your ground" law with his drafted "anti-mob" legislation.

The Miami Herald reported Tuesday on the draft, which traces back to promises DeSantis made earlier this year "as he tried to deliver Florida" to President Donald Trump. The president--who ultimately won the state but lost the election, though is still refusing to concede to President-elect Joe Biden--has come under fire for his own forceful response to the protests.

DeSantis' administration has circulated an "anti-mob legislation draft" among Florida lawmakers since his public statements in September, but no related measures have been filed in the state legislature. However, local attorneys are already raising alarm that the proposal "allows for vigilantes to justify their actions," in the words of Denise Georges.

Georges, a former Miami-Dade County prosecutor who handled "stand your ground" cases, told the Herald that "it also allows for death to be the punishment for a property crime--and that is cruel and unusual punishment. We cannot live in a lawless society where taking a life is done so casually and recklessly."

Florida passed its "stand your ground" law in 2005--and other states, encouraged by the National Rifle Association, followed suit, enacting measures that effectively say people have no duty to retreat before using deadly force to defend themselves. The Florida measure garnered national attention in 2012, after George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer, killed Trayvon Martin, an unarmed Black teenager, in a gated community. Zimmerman's acquittal the next year sparked the Black Lives Matter movement.

"Zimmerman's attorney did not raise a 'stand your ground' defense at the trial," the Washington Post noted in 2014. "But after the trial a juror acknowledged that jurors had discussed the self-defense law before finding Zimmerman not guilty. The law also changed the standard instructions to jurors in homicide cases, so that the judge said that Zimmerman had no duty to retreat and could stand his ground if he felt threatened. (The law may have also played a role in the initial failure of the local police to prosecute Zimmerman.)"

DeSantis' proposal goes even further than 2017 changes to the law that make prosecutors prove by "clear and convincing evidence" that a defendant wasn't acting in self-defense. As the Herald detailed Tuesday:

The proposal would expand the list of "forcible felonies" under Florida's self-defense law to justify the use of force against people who engage in criminal mischief that results in the "interruption or impairment" of a business, and looting, which the draft defines as a burglary within 500 feet of a "violent or disorderly assembly."

Other key elements of DeSantis' proposal would enhance criminal penalties for people involved in "violent or disorderly assemblies," make it a third-degree felony to block traffic during a protest, offer immunity to drivers who claim to have unintentionally killed or injured protesters who block traffic, and withhold state funds from local governments that cut law enforcement budgets.

Former Miami-Dade prosecutor Aubrey Webb told the newspaper that "the Boston Tea Party members would have been lawfully shot under Florida's law by the British East India Tea Company."

"It dangerously gives armed private citizens power to kill as they subjectively determine what constitutes 'criminal mischief' that interferes with a business," Webb said. "Someone graffiti-ing 'Black Lives Matter' on a wall? Urinating behind a dumpster? Blocking an entrance?"

Webb and Georges were far from alone in criticizing the GOP governor's proposal. Critics warned it could lead to more violence by vigilantes like the white teenager charged with killing racial justice protesters in Kenosha, Wisconsin in August and urged DeSantis to instead focus on the coronavirus pandemic that continues to ravage his state.

Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber, retired Miami-Dade homicide prosecutor Reid Rubin, Miami defense lawyer Phil Reizenstein, and Melba Pearson, a civil rights attorney and former deputy director of Florida's American Civil Liberties Union, all shared concerns about the proposal with the Herald, while others on social media described the draft legislation as "legalizing lynching" and "legalizing murder."

As digital rights activist Evan Greer put it: "This is basically just a license for white people to kill protesters."

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