Law enforcement officers who use deadly force in the line of duty can now invoke the state’s ‘stand your ground’ law to protect themselves from prosecution, the Florida Supreme Court ruled Thursday.
The unanimous decision likely will put an end to criminal proceedings against Broward Sheriff’s Deputy Peter Peraza, who was charged with manslaughter in the 2013 death of Oakland Park resident Jermaine McBean.
But it probably won’t affect the lawsuit filed in federal court by McBean’s family.
McBean was walking home from a pawn shop with a newly purchased air rifle slung over his shoulders on July 31, 2013. When deputies ordered him to put the weapon down, McBean first ignored them, then — according to Peraza — turned to face them, appearing to start pointing the weapon in their direction.
An air rifle is a low-powered weapon that shoots pellets, but Peraza’s lawyers were able to show a Broward judge in 2016 that the rifle McBean was carrying was almost indistinguishable from a deadlier weapon.
Other deputies on the scene did not open fire, leading critics, McBean’s family and prosecutors to believe that the shooting was not justified.
“A grand jury heard the evidence, found that it was not a justified shooting, and chose to indict Deputy Peraza on a manslaughter charge,” said Broward State Attorney’s Office spokeswoman Paula McMahon. “Stand Your Ground is a bad law and it doesn’t allow a trial jury to hear the evidence and make a decision.”
McBean’s family contended that he never heard the deputies’ orders because he was listening to music through a pair of ear buds at the time.
David Schoen, the attorney representing McBean’s family in the federal suit, called the ruling a “grave injustice.”
“The entire premise of the decision is based on a lie that is absolutely and indisputably a lie,” Schoen said. “Both of the other deputies on the scene gave sworn videotaped testimony and neither of them ever has said that Jermaine pointed the air rifle at Peraza. … The forensic evidence proves 100% Jermaine could not have been pointing the air rifle at Peraza.”
Peraza said he shot McBean because he feared for his life and for the safety of those around him, including children in the swimming pool area of the Oakland Park neighborhood where the shooting took place.
Broward Circuit Judge Michael Usan was first to determine that Peraza was entitled to immunity from prosecution under the stand your ground law, which blocks criminal cases against those who use deadly force for self defense and defense of others.
Usan cited the law’s language, which extends the protection to any “person,” and concluded that police officers are people too.
But other courts examining similar cases had come to a different conclusion about who is covered by the law, leading to the showdown at the state’s highest court.
In 2012, a Central Florida appeals court ruling refused to extend stand-your-ground protection to Haines City Police Officer Juan Caamano, who was accused of attempted battery for allegedly stomping on a man who was already subdued by other cops. The Second District Court of Appeal determined that law enforcement officers’ use of force is governed by a separate statute.
The Supreme Court ruled for Peraza.
“Put simply, a law enforcement officer is a ‘person’ whether on duty or off, and irrespective of whether the officer is making an arrest,” the court ruled. “Although neither of the two statutes defines the word ‘person,’ it must be given its “plain and ordinary meaning.”
Peraza was represented by Broward Police Benevolent Association lawyers Eric Schwartzreich and Anthony J. Bruno, who praised the decision.
“Deputy Peraza should never have been charged. He has every right to assert the same laws that anyone gets to assert,” Schwartzreich said. “He regrets that there was a loss of life. But there’s no benefit of hindsight when you’re a law enforcement officer. If he had to take the same action he would do it again.”
(c)2018 the Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.)
Visit the Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.) at www.sun-sentinel.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
This content is published through a licensing agreement with Acquire Media using its NewsEdge technology.