Florida lawmaker Matt Gaetz has proposed an amendment to the state’s controversial “stand your ground” law that would make it virtually impossible to obtain the court records of defendants who have successfully used the self-defense law in trial.
Rep. Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, proposed the change after the Tampa Bay Times published a review of 200 cases, which shows the law is unevenly applied in similar cases and has unpredictable results.
The proposed amendment would allow for defendants who successfully use the law as a legal defense, or have their charges dropped, to apply for a “certificate of eligibility” to expunge information related to “stand your ground” from their criminal records. The change could only take place once a defendant applies for the certificate.
The amendment was attached to a bill with wide bipartisan support that seeks an expansion of the "stand your ground" law for people who fire warning shots as a method of self-defense, a change brought about after the high-profile Marissa Alexander case drew attention to issues with Florida’s mandatory minimum sentencing for cases involving a gun.
Alexander was sentenced to 20 years in prison for firing a warning shot into her ceiling during an altercation with her estranged husband. An appeals court has ordered her a new trial.
The bill has already worked its way through the state’s Republican-controlled House and the Senate is expected to pass it. A formal vote is scheduled for Wednesday.
The measure has drawn intense criticism from local media, which say the change will significantly damage access to public records.
“Closing records and putting controversial cases that involve violence into the dark is a bad idea, it is against democracy,” Tampa Bay Times Editor Neil Brown said in an interview with Media Matters. He argued that the Times wouldn't have been able to conduct its review of the cases if this measure were in effect.
“This would have inhibited our work further. Our work was done based on court records as well as the stories of the incidents when they occurred.”
Kelly McBride, Senior Faculty for Ethics at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in Florida, told Al Jazeera that if the law was solid, it would stand up to public scrutiny.
“The reality is every time journalists dig into this, you don’t have to go very far at all to raise major questions about the legitimacy of the law and the fairness of how it is applied,” said McBride. “This is how the checks and balances work in a democracy. Laws hold great power over citizens, and individual journalists look at those laws and scrutinize whether that power is reasonable.”
Poynter is parent company of Times Publishing, the company that publishes the Tampa Bay Times.
McBride said the public also pays when journalists aren’t able to put laws under the microscope. She pointed to a recent report in Florida that exposed an issue with traffic lights.
The state legislature allowed cities to install red-light cameras at many intersections, and a number of cities also shortened the length of time between the yellow and red lights, which theoretically leads to more people being fined for “running” red lights.
“The journalists were the ones who revealed that, so as a driver in this state I now know I don’t just have to be wary of cruising through a red light. I have to be wary of how long the yellow light is, and I know that from journalism,” said McBride.
Rep. Gaetz has staunchly defended “stand your ground,” saying he doesn’t support “changing one damn comma” in the law. The law gained widespread notoriety following George Zimmerman’s acquittal in the shooting of Trayvon Martin, and it was thrust back into the spotlight in the Jordan Davis case.
Gaetz was unavailable for comment, but he told the Associated Press his amendment was not related to the Tampa Bay Times piece.
"The point is to ensure that someone who appropriately uses a 'stand your ground' defense doesn't have their life ruined by the use of that defense," he said, calling any changes to the law “reactionary and dangerous” and those opposed to the law were “uninformed.”