Tallahassee, FL – The Florida Supreme Court will determine whether or not law enforcement officers will be able to invoke the “stand your ground” law if they are accused of using excessive force in the line of duty.
The court announced on Friday that it will review the case against Broward County Sheriff’s Deputy Peter Peraza, after a lower court dismissed a manslaughter charge against him in 2016 when the deputy invoked stand your ground, the Sun-Sentinel reported.
“As far as I’m aware, the Peraza case was the first time that stand your ground was asserted and used successfully for an officer charged in an on-duty shooting in Florida,” Broward Police Benevolent Association attorney Eric Schwartzreich, who represents Deputy Peraza, told the Sun-Sentinel.
Enacted by the Florida legislature in 2005, the stand your ground law eliminated “duty to retreat” rules with regard to self-defense or defense of others, and thereby granted prosecutorial immunity to those who use force to defend themselves or others.
On July 31, 2013, Deputy Peraza and other officers were dispatched to a report of a man carrying a .22 caliber rifle in Oakland Park, near a swimming pool where youth were playing, the Sun-Sentinel reported.
Police arrived to find 33-year-old Jermain McBean, who was walking with the weapon propped on his shoulder. When officers ordered him to put the gun down, McBean did not comply.
Deputy Peraza testified that McBean appeared to raise the weapon as if he was going to fire it, prompting the deputy to shoot at the threat.
McBean died at the scene. Investigators later learned that the weapon was a realistic-looking air rifle, which McBean had purchased at a local pawn shop shortly before the encounter.
“I really thought that I could be killed,” Deputy Peraza said during a 2016 pretrial hearing, according to the Sun-Sentinel. “I've never been so scared in my life.”
The 14-year veteran of the Broward County Sheriff’s Office said he was also concerned for others in the area.
The deputy was arrested on Dec. 11, 2015, following a grand jury indictment, and charged with manslaughter with a firearm, WPLG reported.
After Deputy Peraza invoked stand your ground, Broward Circuit Judge Michael Usan dismissed the charge against him, prompting prosecutors to appeal to the Fourth District Court of Appeal, the Sun-Sentinel reported.
In August of 2017, the appeals court upheld Usan’s decision.
But Usan’s ruling conflicted with a 2012 decision in another Florida appeals case, which determined that police are bound by another statute with regard to use of force.
“Stand your ground is not consistent with the training for police officers, who are supposed to use the least force necessary,” Former federal prosecutor and current Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber told the Sun-Sentinel in January. “You don’t want to take away their rights as citizens, but can they be a police officer if they are not going to follow their rules of engagement? It’s a fascinating question.”
Broward prosecutors and the Florida Attorney General argued that police are held to a different standard than civilians, and that the stand your ground law is not intended to protect officers.
“The Legislature limited the immunity available to officers acting with violence in their official capacity when it enacted” rules that govern officers’ of force, Attorney General Pam Bondi and two assistants wrote in an appeal.
If police are allowed to invoke stand your ground, the use of force laws are essentially “meaningless,” they said.
"The original intent is for all law abiding people to have the protection of their self-protection rights,” one of the stand your ground law’s original sponsors, Sen. Dennis Boxley, said in an e-mail to the Sun-Sentinel. “But in the performance of official duties as a professional, other training, policy, and protocols would apply.”
Deputy Peraza continues to work for the Broward County Sheriff’s Office.
Stand your ground has previously been successfully invoked to protect officers from civil liability in shooting cases, but it has not been tested in the criminal case of a law enforcement officer before Deputy Peraza.
The decision in his case was expected to impact the case of ex-Palm Beach Gardens cop Nouman Raja, who was charged with manslaughter in the fatal 2015 shooting of stranded motorist Corey Jones.
A Palm Beach judge is scheduled to hear stand-your-ground arguments from Raja’s attorney in March, the Sun-Sentinel reported.