by Art Levy
Updated 8 months ago
The debate over Florida's ‘stand your ground' law has moved to the ivory tower.
Since 1995, Frank de la Torre has been a popular adjunct professor at Florida Atlantic University, teaching a variety of classes at the school of criminology and criminal justice. A couple of semesters ago, de la Torre, the chief assistant public defender of Broward County, started teaching an elective course on Florida Statute 776, which contains Florida's infamous "stand your ground" law.
FAU hasn't had any trouble filling the course's 75 seats, but de la Torre warns that his class isn't about debating ‘stand your ground' as pundits do on cable television. Toward the end of the semester, students take a side and articulate their position to classmates, but first they have to study Ñ and learn Ñ Florida's version of the law.
"It's a very emotional topic," says de la Torre, a public defender for more than 30 years. "My hope is that students can discuss it intelligently, free of emotion, and make a decision on whether they favor the statute or not based on the facts and based on the law. My goal for the students is they'll know the ins and outs of stand your ground and self-defense in Florida as good as or better than lawyers. "
So far, he says most of the students end up supporting the law. De la Torre, who tries to keep his own opinions out of the classroom, says the law is often misinterpreted by those who don't take the time to understand it. "Some of the criticism is fair.
Some of it is unfair because the majority of states have a very similar statute to Florida's. The minority of states Ñ 19 Ñ have statutes that force you to retreat prior to using stand your ground if you can do so safely. "
De la Torre, who also teaches the law to new lawyers in the Broward public defender's office, has defended clients six times using stand your ground, winning half of the cases.
"In making a self-assessment of why I won three and lost three, it was easy to figure out," he says. "When I had witnesses, I usually won. When I didn't have witnesses in my favor, I lost. That's something that people need to understand. A stand your ground defendant has the burden of proof. "
De la Torre says it's not easy to prove stand your ground in court Ñ nor should it be.
"This is something that I tell my students, my clients and the lawyers I supervise: Stand your ground is not a magic pill that you can go out and shoot somebody . . . and you are going to be able to just say, ‘Oh, I stood my ground. ' You're ultimately going to be judged on your actions and whether you reasonably used the statute and if it was necessary to use the statute and whether your actions were as a result of an imminent threat against you. People get the notion, ‘Oh, in Florida I can just go and shoot someone. ' That's not true. That's not what stand your ground was meant to do. "
Stand Your Ground History
Florida's stand your ground law was enacted in 2005 with widespread support among legislators. Then-Gov. Jeb Bush signed it into law. However, the law didn't become widely used and effective statewide until after a 2010 Florida Supreme Court case, Dennis v. Florida, that gave judges and lawyers clearer guidelines on the law.
"We're known as a state where you can get shot for wearing a hoodie," de la Torre says, referring to the Trayvon Martin case.