Lawmakers poised to limit access to Stand Your Ground records

Matt Gaetz
Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, speaks on the floor of the Florida House of Representatives on April 4, 2013, at the Capitol in Tallahassee, Fla.

Florida lawmakers have begun the process of changing the state's controversial "Stand Your Ground" law with an amendment that could limit access to court records in self-defense cases involving the law. 

The changes, proposed by State Rep. Matt Gaetz and cleared through the Florida House, would allow those found to have used justifiable force in a Stand Your Ground case could apply to have their records expunged and made unavailable to the public, including journalists. 

Most of the coverage of the legislation has focused on the expansion of the law to include warning shots, inspired in part by Marissa Alexander's case. The State Attorney's office is set to retry Alexander this summer on charges of aggravated assault stemming from an incident in which she fired a warning shot in the direction of her estranged husband and his children, injuring no one. She was denied the opportunity to invoke immunity under Stand Your Ground in her original trial, but her lawyer has said he will seek that immunity for his client again

If passed, the change would severely limit the impact of media outlets to report on trends in rulings on Stand Your Ground cases, hindering journalists from creating analyses like a review of 200 cases done by the Tampa Bay Times in 2012 which found the law was being applied "uneven[ly]" and "used in ways never imagined."

"The point is to make sure that someone who appropriately uses the Stand Your Ground defense doesn't have their life ruined by the use of that defense," Gaetz told the Times.

Gaetz has fought against efforts to repeal the Stand Your Ground in the past. When protesters took over the state capitol in the weeks after the ruling, demanding the law be repealed, Gaetz said, “I don’t support changing one damn comma of the Stand Your Ground law."

Florida journalists expressed concern that the amendment could significantly hinder independent efforts to assess the impact of the law. 

"Closing records and putting controversial cases that involve violence into the dark is a bad idea, it is against democracy," Times editor Neil Brown told Media Matters. "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."

"If those were expunged, I don't know how you would ever do any kind of meaningful look back at the law," Times reporter Kris Hundley, who worked on the 2012 project, said. "I think it was important because it gave people a sense of how it was applied across the state, how judges made different decisions faced with similar cases and the wide variety of cases in which it was employed. It showed the law was being expanded to far beyond what the legislators anticipated and (was) applied unevenly."

Florida Democratic State Rep. Kionne McGhee has opposed the legislation since before his colleagues added the new amendment relating to court records, telling Rev. Sharpton on PoliticsNation last month he believes it is problematic. 

“This is one of those bills that on its face it looks like it’s there to help Marissa Alexander, but when you really dove into the language of the bill you realize the bill is so vague that it’s going to lead us down a slippery slope,” he said.