Florida makes clear that self-defense laws apply equally to defensive threat of force (including warning shots) as to actual force

On Friday, Florida Gov. Rick Scott signed HB89, which mainly makes clear that self-defense laws — including the Florida no-duty-to-retreat law (often called “stand your ground”) — apply equally to defensive threats of force, including warning shots, as they do to actual force. This seems to me quite right: whatever one might think of the possible scope of self-defense, and of no-duty-to-retreat laws, if actually killing or injuring someone is justifiable self-defense, then threatening to do so should be as well.

The law also waives the statutory mandatory minimum sentence for what is often called “imperfect self-defense” — a situation where a person sincerely but unreasonably believed that he or she was being threatened. In such a situation, the person would still be guilty, because the self-defense defense wouldn’t apply; but the statutory minimum sentence, which can sometimes be 20 years, wouldn’t apply, and the court would be free to sentence using the more usual sentencing considerations. (This waiver only applies if the court finds that the attack didn’t take place in the course of the defendant’s committing another crime, and the defendant doesn’t pose a threat to public safety.)

The statute was apparently motivated in part by the Marissa Alexander case, in which the jury was (among other things) instructed that self-defense “is a defense to the offense with which [Alexander] is charged if the injury to Rico Gray Sr. resulted from the justifiable use of deadly force” (emphasis added); the instruction implies that, in the absence of injury — i.e., where there’s just a threat or perhaps just an attempted injury — there might be no self-defense defense. Indeed, four years ago a Kansas court held that Kansas self-defense law doesn’t apply to brandishing, threats, or even unsuccessful attempts to use force.

As it turns out, Alexander’s conviction was overturned last year by the Florida Court of Appeal, and that court held that Florida law already did allow self-defense as a defense even in the absence of injury inflicted by the allegedly defensive act. Nonetheless, this statute makes that clearer. (The contrary Kansas decision I mentioned above was also overturned by statute.)

Eugene Volokh teaches free speech law, religious freedom law, church-state relations law, a First Amendment Amicus Brief Clinic, and tort law, at UCLA School of Law, where he has also often taught copyright law, criminal law, and a seminar on firearms regulation policy.
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