A Florida judge dismissed manslaughter charges Wednesday against a sheriff’s deputy who fatally shot a black man armed with an air rifle, citing the state’s stand-your-ground law.
Judge Michael Usan ruled that Peter Peraza, a sheriff’s deputy in Broward County, was immune from prosecution under the state’s controversial statute. The case is believed to be the first time that a law enforcement officer charged in an on-duty killing has successfully used the provision as a defense.
“It’s a complete travesty and I think it’s completely lawless,” said David Schoen, a lawyer representing McBean’s family.
The law, which garnered national outrage after the 2012 death of Trayvon Martin, permits individuals to use deadly force if they “reasonably believe” there is an imminent threat. It eliminates the traditional duty to first attempt retreat.
Stand-your-ground laws have historically been used as a civilian defense. Peraza’s attorneys said they believe this is the first time an officer in has cited a stand-your-ground law in defense of a fatal, on-duty shooting. Professor Adam Winkler of the UCLA School of Law explained that the stand your ground laws were originally justified as protections for ordinary civilians, not police officers, who are subject to separate legal and departmental standards establishing when they are allowed to use deadly force.
“It’s just kind of an odd idea that we’d apply these civilian laws to police officers,” he said.
Peraza was charged with manslaughter last year in the 2013 shooting of Jermaine McBean, a black man who was carrying an unloaded air rifle while walking home along a highway. Witnesses who saw McBean carrying the rifle called 911, after which Peraza and two other sheriff’s deputies responded. Police said McBean ignored commands to drop the rifle and pointed it at authorities before Peraza opened fire, although a witness to the shooting has disputed that Peraza pointed the rifle.
A witness photograph taken shortly after McBean was killed showed white earbuds around his head. The photograph raised questions about whether McBean could hear the deputies’ commands to drop the air rifle. Peraza has said he did not see McBean wearing earbuds.
Usan dismissed the charges against Peraza, a 37-year-old Latino man, on Wednesday before the case went to a jury trial. The stand your ground law permits a judge to halt a case after a hearing on the defendant’s stand your ground claim. In his ruling, Usan wrote that stand your ground applies to police officers on duty because the law applies to “a person who uses force” and “a law enforcement officer under any reasonable understanding of our language qualifies as a person”.
Local prosecutors and Schoen both said Usan’s decision conflicts with a 2012 ruling by a Florida appellate court. In that ruling, the appeals court declined to grant an officer charged with battery immunity on the basis of stand your ground, writing that the law was meant for civilians and not police officers, the Lakeland Ledger reported in 2012. Usan wrote that the appellate court’s decision is limited “to cases where the officer is in the process of making an arrest”.
“The Florida court of appeals has said [stand your ground] cannot be used. This judge just ignored that,” Schoen said.
Prosecutors said Wednesday they will appeal Usan’s decision.
“We believe, based upon an appellate court decision, that a law enforcement officer is not entitled to a dismissal of the charge based upon the Stand Your Ground Law,” a spokesman for the local state attorney’s office wrote in a statement.
Peraza’s legal team said the shooting was justified and that his indictment was “because of the political climate”.
“This was classic stand your ground,” said Eric Schwartzreich, one of Peraza’s attorneys. “In fact I’ve never seen a better stand your ground motion in the 20 years I’ve been practicing.”
The judge’s unprecedented ruling further complicates the law’s already fraught legacy. The law was notably cited when police initially refused to arrest George Zimmerman after he fatally shot Trayvon Martin, a black 17-year-old who was walking home from a convenience store when he was confronted by the neighborhood watch captain. When the case went to trial after Zimmerman was later arrested and charged with second-degree murder, Zimmerman’s legal team argued the then 27-year-old was defending himself but did not seek immunity through stand your ground. Zimmerman was found not guilty in 2013.
Florida’s legislation, which was signed into law in 2005, has been subject to drastically different interpretation by local authorities. A Tampa Bay Times investigation in 2012 reviewed 200 cases in which the law was invoked and found that in 70% of those cases, the accused went free. The newspaper also found stark racial disparities in the law’s application: people who killed a black person were more likely to go free in stand-your-ground cases.