Florida stands its ground against media access to Stand Your Ground cases

Ah, Florida. You’ve got to love the originality of the place. First it comes up with the Stand Your Ground law. Now the state is back in the news with another fun-in-the-sun idea. Yes, it seems at least one legislator in Florida thinks that individuals who injure or kill—and then are acquitted for their crimes based on a Stand Your Ground defense—deserve a bit more love from the state of Florida. To that end, Republican State Representative Matt Gaetz is on a crusade to take some of the “sunshine” out of the Sunshine State.

Let me explain. Sunshine, in this context, refers to “regulations that require openness in government. Sunshine laws make meetings, records, votes, deliberations, and other official actions available for public observation, participation, and/or inspection.”  Today all fifty states, the District of Columbia, and the federal government have sunshine laws on the books.

Apparently, Representative Gaetz either doesn’t know or doesn’t care about the history of his state. He’s out to overturn Florida’s more-than-century-long, proud tradition of enacting open-government laws. Way back in 1909, when sunshine laws were just a twinkle in the eye of other states, Florida passed Chapter 119 of the Florida statutes, called the Public Records Law. In 1967, Florida enacted one of the first sunshine laws in the nation, the Government-in-the-Sunshine law, which became Chapter 286 of the Florida Statutes. And, in 1995, the Florida state legislature passed The Florida Sunshine Law.

So what happened to encourage Representative Gaetz to fly in the face of tradition?

(Could it be that Gaetz feels emboldened by the scorched-earth jurisprudence of Roberts, Scalia, Thomas, and Alito? Please feel free to answer that question for yourself in the privacy of your own home.)

What happened was that in June 2012, the Tampa Bay Times had the audacity to do exactly what a free and independent press is supposed to do. The newspaper’s reporters and editors recognized an important story, gathered the facts via public records, and published their findings. Following an investigative piece that looked at over two hundred cases in the then-seven years since the Stand Your Ground law was passed, the newspaper published a piece with the headline “Uneven Application, Shocking Outcomes.” The paper’s conclusions, based on statistical analysis, demonstrated the obscenity of Stand Your Ground and showed how deeply the law has subverted the cause of justice.

The paper’s conclusions were not pretty. But here they are:

70 percent of those who invoke the “stand your ground” defense to avoid prosecution for harming or killing someone have gone free [italics added].

Defendants who claim “stand your ground” are more likely to be successful if the victim is black. 73 percent of people who killed a black person faced no penalty.

The number of “stand your ground” cases is increasing as Florida attorneys are using the defense in ways state legislators never envisioned.

If you look at some of the cases claiming the Stand Your Ground defense and succeeding, they are so ludicrous they could have been pulled off of “Saturday Night Live.” Take the case of the jogger who beat a Jack Russell terrier. Then there’s the case of a self-professed vampire. What about the man who shot a bear? Or how about my personal favorite, the too-many-garbage-bags-on-the-street nut who shot his neighbor in the stomach and chest because the neighbor put out eight rather than six bags on the curb? By the way, if you’re wondering, garbage-bag nut got off scot-free, demonstrating that, among some of its more admirable qualities, Florida can rightfully claim to be a particularly fastidious state.

In the context of all of the mayhem the Stand Your Ground law has unleashed, in waltzes Representative Gaetz, who just doesn’t like the facts the Tampa Bay Times revealed in its 2012 piece (and continues to publicize in a banner at the top of their online edition that invites the public to review the database of Stand Your Ground cases). In fact, Gaetz dislikes the facts so much that he doesn’t want anybody to be bothered by those facts ever again. So, what’s he going to do about it? Following in the hallowed democratic traditions of this great nation, Gaetz has decided to introduce a bill in the Florida legislature that will restrict media and public access specifically to Stand Your Ground case records.

Gaetz’s bill allows defendants who appropriately use the Stand Your Ground defense to petition to have the history of their criminal record expunged and, in the language of the bill, the defendant’s “criminal history is confidential and exempt from the provisions of the State Constitution.” Gaetz hasn’t left a stone unturned when it comes to showing love for people who injure and kill. Just in case there are some Floridians who still believe they live in a democracy and feel an itch to exercise the stirrings of conscience, the Fort Walton Beach legislator inserted language making it unlawful for anyone to “disclose information relating to the existence [emphasis added] of an expunged criminal history.” And just in case democracy lovers still don’t get the message, Gaetz proposes to criminalize disclosure of any such information and make it punishable as a misdemeanor.

Do you see where this is going? Floridians can walk away from killing or maiming someone for no good reason and have the record of their crime destroyed, but responsible journalists, individuals, and government employees who want the public to have the information necessary for informed public debate can be fined or go to jail.

It makes you wonder, doesn’t it, what kind of country we’ve become.

An update on Representative Gaetz’s proposed bill: The amendment to expunge criminal records, HB89, was adopted by voice vote in the Florida Senate. The larger bill to which it was attached, SB-448, was passed on April 3, 2014, by a vote of 32-7. The bill and the amendment are now on the way to Governor Rick Scott’s desk. The governor is expected to sign the amendment into law.


[Featured image: Gary Oliver, Big Bend Sentinel]