By Bill Cotterell
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (Reuters) - An appeal before the Florida Supreme Court on Tuesday could shift the burden of proof for the state’s “Stand Your Ground” law, relieving gun owners of a legal duty to prove self-defense when they brandish weapons in violent confrontations.
If the high court sides with Jared Bretherick, who was charged with aggravated assault for pointing a pistol at a man in a road-rage incident, the burden of proof would be shifted to prosecutors to show that a defendant claiming the law’s protection did not act in self-defense.
The 2005 law allows citizens to use deadly force when they reasonably perceive that their lives or the lives of others are in danger.
Court records indicate Bretherick was riding with his family on Dec. 29, 2011, when a passing vehicle driven by Derek Dunning nearly sideswiped their SUV near Orlando.
The Indiana family said Dunning cut them off and stopped his own SUV in front of them, jumping out, and that driver Ronald Bretherick called 911 and showed his holstered gun to warn the man away.
The Brethericks said Dunning returned to his vehicle but backed it up toward them. Jared Bretherick then took his father’s gun and stood beside their vehicle. Deputies said the younger man was pointing the gun at Dunning’s SUV when they arrived.
No shots were fired. Jared Bretherick said he heard Dunning say he had a gun, although none was found, and he was charged with aggravated assault. He said he stayed by the SUV to protect his father, a disabled veteran, until police arrived.
Judge Scott Polodna denied “Stand Your Ground” immunity at a hearing in June 2012, saying Dunning was not committing a violent crime, and had retreated by returning to his own SUV.Faced with a mandatory three-year sentence if convicted, Bretherick appealed and a district appellate court asked the state Supreme Court to decide the proof issue.
The National Rifle Association has filed a brief supporting Bretherick.
The NRA-backed “Stand Your Ground” law drew nationwide attention in the 2012 fatal shooting of teenager Trayvon Martin in Sanford by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman, who was acquitted in 2013.
This year’s Florida legislative session produced a new law permitting gun owners to display their weapons, or even fire warning shots, to ward off attackers without facing assault charges if they fear death or injury.
(Editing by David Adams and Mohammad Zargham)