Self-Defense Immunity

Immunity and Confusion

Self-Defense Immunity Law Update

Self-Defense Immunity from Prosecution

Whenever a person in the state of Florida acts in lawful self-defense, they are considered immune from criminal prosecution and civil lawsuits that are based on the self-defense. Of course, this law does not stop people from being arrested or sued when actual self-defense incidents occur. If a person is charged with a crime, such as assault, battery, or murder, after acting in self-defense, they are allowed to file a Motion for Immunity. This motion will explain why the Defendant cannot be prosecuted based on their actions. When a sufficient motion is filed, the court will set the motion for a hearing. If the Defendant wins at the hearing, the charges must be immediately dismissed. Until recently, Florida courts have consistently found that once a sufficient motion is filed by the defense, the state has the burden to prove that the defendant illegally defended himself or herself. However, a recent case out of the First District Court of Appeals has made it so Florida courts are, once again, not in total agreement about how self-defense law works. This means that your case very well may depend on exactly where in Florida you act in self-defense.

The two cases most relevant to this circuit split are Jefferson v. State, 264 So.3d 1019 (Fla. 2nd DCA 2018) and Freeman v. State, 373 So.3d 1255 (Fla. 1st DCA 2023). Many court around Florida have been following the precedent set by Jefferson for several years. However, the First DCA’s decision in Freeman in late 2023 has created potential issues all around the state for Defendants in self-defense immunity hearings.

Jefferson v. State on Self-Defense Immunity

The burden of proof is very important to establish in any court hearing. To explain briefly, the “burden of proof” tells us which side has to provide evidence in order to win, and how much evidence is required. For example, at trial, the state must prove the defendant is guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt.” This means that the defendant is not required to put on any evidence at all. It is 100% the state’s job to prove guilt.

According to the Jefferson court, the defendant in a self-defense case only has the initial burden to raise a “prima facie claim of immunity” in their motion. Essentially, if the defendant files a motion explaining what happened during the self-defense incident and why their use of force was lawful, the defendant then has no further burden of proof at the self-defense immunity hearing. Once this has been done, the state has the burden to prove the defendant did not lawful use self-defense. They must prove this by “clear and convincing evidence.” This language is taken directly from the immunity statute (See Florida Statute 776.032). The case makes it clear that the defendant is not required to testify or enter any evidence whatsoever at the hearing itself. It is entirely the state’s responsibility to prove that the Defendant did NOT lawfully use self-defense. The defendant automatically wins if the state’s evidence is not enough, even if the defendant did not enter any evidence at all.

Freeman v. State on Self-Defense Immunity

The more recent case Freeman v. State has two main statements of law which may cause issues at future self-defense immunity hearings. The first of these two issues does not seem to conflict with Jefferson, and after analyzing the case, does appear to be a correct statement of the law. In Freeman, the defendant filed a self-defense immunity motion that only had boilerplate language, reciting Florida statutes regarding the use of self-defense and then simply alleging that “any force or threat of force used by the Defendant would have been justified” under Florida law. As mentioned above, to raise a sufficient motion, the defendant needs to state specific facts that demonstrate why, at face value, the Defendant’s actions were lawful self-defense. The Freeman court correctly pointed out that the defendant failed to do that here. Therefore, the defense did not meet its initial burden of raising a prima facie claim of self-defense, and the burden never shifted to the State to prove unlawful use of force.

The second conclusion raised by the court presents the potential conflict with Jefferson. The Freeman court found that the defendant failed to put on any evidence during the hearing. The court went on to state that the defendant was required to put on evidence at the hearing in order to shift the burden to the state, and the defendant’s failure to put on evidence meant they could not win at the hearing. Prosecutors around the state are arguing that this is in direct conflict with Jefferson. When conflicts exist between jurisdictions, it allows other jurisdictions to pick and choose which case to follow. This could present issues for defendants as they may find themselves forced to present evidence at a hearing where previously they were not required to do so.

After a careful reading of Freeman, our firm has concluded that Freeman does not present a conflict with Jefferson, and that courts treating it as creating new law are incorrect. First, the statement that defendants are required to put on evidence is dicta. Dicta refers to when a judge issues an opinion that contains incidental language that is not essential to the judge’s ruling or opinion. Dicta is persuasive in future arguments, but it does not create binding interpretations of the law. The reason this language is mere dicta is that the case was decided on the issue of the defendant filing an inadequate motion. As mentioned above, the motion did not contain any specific facts related to the use of self-defense, but only recited the law and therefore, did not meet the defendant’s requirement to make a prima facie claim of self-defense. The appellate court’s final decision rests on this fact. The fact that the defendant did not put on evidence at the hearing was not essential to this decision. This is made clear by the court’s final sentence in the case, “Because Freeman failed to allege a prima facie claim of self-defense immunity in her motion to dismiss, we affirm the trial court’s order denying the motion.” See Freeman v. State, at 1261. Because the language stating the defendant must put on evidence is only dicta, it does not actually create new law.

The second reason that Freeman does not create new law is again that, in Freeman, the defendant submitted an inadequate motion. Drawing distinctions from particular cases is something that every lawyer must learn to do. In any case where the defense actually files a valid self-defense motion, raising all the issues and stating facts in the way required, their case will be completely and obviously distinct from Freeman. The Freeman defendant failed to raise an adequate claim both in their motion and at the hearing. There is no reason to believe that Freeman requires a defendant to put on evidence at the hearing on their motion if they have written a proper motion and raised a prima facie claim of self-defense. This is exactly what the law requires, and it is exactly what the court in Jefferson, and in all the cases that agreed with Jefferson, established in the first place.

Freeman is likely to cause issues in some self-defense cases going forward. For the reasons we discussed here, we believe that any prosecutors or judges who actually use Freeman to require the defendant to put on evidence at a self-defense hearing are doing so in error. However, until either the First District Court of Appeals clarifies the opinion or the Florida Supreme Court makes a ruling, it is likely that in certain parts of the state, some judges will require the defendant to present evidence at the self-defense immunity hearing.

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