A road rage incident involving an Indiana family on the way to DisneyWorld in 2011 has led to a major court ruling that is a severe setback for stand your ground laws and gun rights, leaving the NRA steaming mad. On July 9, 2015, Florida’s Supreme Court ruled 5-2 that defendants, not the prosecutors, has the burden of proof in a self-defense situation.
A ruling for the defense could have led to more pretrial acquittals, and made it easier to get immunity under the stand your ground law. Stand your ground gives a defendant two chances to go free. Pre-trial hearings are held in “stand your ground” cases, to determine whether defendants are immune from prosecution.
The court decision came in the case of defendant Jared Bretherick, who was 22 years-old when he was riding with his 13 year-old sister on the back seat of a Chevy Silverado truck as his parents Ron and Debbie Bretherick – both disabled veterans – were in the front. Ron was driving, as the vacationing Hossiers headed to Orlando for a stop at DisneyWorld on the way home to Avon, Indiana from a Christmas vacation.
On December 29, 2011 a Florida man, Derrick Dunning, driving a blue Cadillac Escalade, was reportedly driving recklessly through traffic in Osceola County at a high rate of speed. After Dunning almost collided with the Brethericks while swerving toward their truck, Ron instinctively responded with his horn, and continued driving. Dunning apparently didn’t like it.
According to a police report, Dunning at some point stopped the Escalade in the middle of a multi-lane highway – right in front of the Bretherick’s pickup. He got out of his vehicle, walking back toward the Indiana family – who later said they felt threatened. Jared got Ron’s gun from the glove compartment while Debbie called 911.
As Dunning approached, Ron held up his gun. Dunning backed up, returning to his vehicle saying “I got a gun, too”, while Jared grabbed the family gun and got out of the pickup. There ensued a brief standoff between Jared and Dunning, since no one knew Dunning’s intentions after he returned to his Escalade and sat there. The two females exited the pickup and ducked in a ditch on the side of the highway. Ron, the driver, was immobile due to the nature of his disability. The cops arrived just in time -10 minutes after the 911 call, according to reports.
Despite family and witness statements about the circumstances, Jared Bretherick was arrested for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. Police found no weapon in Dunning’s vehicle. At a stand your ground hearing, Bretherick was denied immunity, yet the defense and his case centered more on Florida’s self-defense immunity statutes than on stand your ground law.
The Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association had backed the state during the litigation, and Jared’s mother, Debbie Bretherick, started an organization, Mothers Against Wrongful Prosecution (MAWP), to “address the growing concerns of the policies and powers of the prosecutor’s office within the criminal justice system.”
The NRA, which had filed motions supporting Jared Bretherick, calls the court decision an attack on Second Amendment rights. Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), an organization fighting against Florida’s 10-20-life sentencing, says that due to this ruling, “law-abiding gun owners in Florida are now more vulnerable to prosecution and conviction for acting in self-defense.”
In the final Florida Supreme Court ruling, Justice Barbara Pariente said immunity in stand your ground law is not blanket immunity, but requires establishing that use of force was legally justified.
She was joined in the majority opinion by Chief Justice Jorge Labarga and Justices Peggy Quince and James E.C. Perry in stating, “We conclude that placing the burden of proof on the defendant to establish entitlement to stand your ground immunity by a preponderance of the evidence at the pretrial evidentiary hearing, rather than on the state to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant’s use of force was not justified, is consistent with this court’s precedent and gives effect to the legislative intent.” Justice R. Fred Lewis concurred.
In his dissenting opinion, Justice J. Canady said, “By imposing the burden of proof on the defendant at the pretrial evidentiary hearing, the majority substantially curtails the benefit of the immunity from trial conferred by the legislature under the stand your ground law.”
News4Jax.com reported that State Representative Alan Williams calls the ruling a chance for Florida lawmakers to scrap “stand your ground” and start over. “There are provisions of the law that allow aggressors to get away with murder, so I want us to repeal it and start over, so hopefully this is our opportunity,” Williams said.
[CORRECTION: This article has been modified from it’s original version. The sentence “Police found a weapon in Dunning’s vehicle” should have read “Police found no weapon in Dunning’s vehicle.”]