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Utah lawmakers advance bill to keep self-defense shootings out of court

The legislation’s sponsor says legal battles can devastate people who were just trying to protect themselves.

(Ruth Fremson | The New York Times) A display of handguns at Sharp Shooting Indoor Range & Gun Shop in Spokane, Wash., Nov. 4, 2019.

People who fire a gun in self-defense or otherwise use force in a manner already justified under Utah law would have greater immunity from criminal prosecution under a bill that passed the House of Representatives on Monday.

State Rep. Karianne Lisonbee told her colleagues that the measure, HB227, would decrease the risk that Utahns would face lengthy, costly prosecutions after acting to protect themselves or someone else from violence.

“This can be financially devastating to most people,” Lisonbee, R-Clearfield, said, as bill supporters argued the very fear of a drawn-out legal battle could cause people to hesitate before drawing a gun in a life-and-death situation.

But House Democrats, who unanimously opposed the bill, worried that the change might have unintended consequences.

“We may be in fact encouraging or giving tacit approval to a more aggressive use of deadly force than is wise from a public safety and a public policy perspective,” House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, said, adding that he’d like more input from law enforcement and prosecutors before supporting the measure.

Utah law already protects against frivolous prosecutions with the inclusion of self-defense justifications, which district attorneys take into consideration before proceeding with criminal charges in the first place, he added.

Under HB227, courts would be required to hold a pretrial hearing to review evidence on whether the use of force or threat to use force was justified and could dismiss the charges if the prosecution doesn’t clear a high bar of proving that there is “clear and convincing evidence” immunity would not apply in the case.

If the case moves beyond that point, the issue of justification could be raised to a jury and the state would have to prove “beyond a reasonable doubt” that the use of force wasn’t acceptable.

Under existing state code, an individual is not justified in using force in the following cases:

  • if he or she had provoked it “as an excuse to inflict bodily harm upon the other individual”;

  • if the person was attempting to commit, in the process of committing or had committed and was fleeing a felony, “unless the use of force is unrelated” to that crime; and

  • if the person was an engaged in “combat by agreement,” unless he or she had withdrawn from the encounter and the other person continued to use force.

Lisonbee said on the House floor that her bill language — which is supported by Utah gun rights advocates — “basically copies and pastes” from statutes passed in Florida.

During a committee hearing earlier this month, a Utah attorney who presented the bill with Lisonbee said that the Florida Legislature passed these laws following George Zimmerman’s prosecution for shooting an unarmed Black teenager in 2012.

Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer, pursued 17-year-old Trayvon Martin through a Central Florida neighborhood and shot and killed him during an altercation. Zimmerman was ultimately acquitted in that case but spent $2.5 million to defend himself, and Florida lawmakers passed legislation similar to HB227 out of concern about this financial burden, the attorney said.

Lisbonee said she’s heard about people leaving concealed-carry classes after hearing that firing their gun in self-defense could result in a difficult legal process.

“They have had people walk out of their class, saying, ‘I would rather die than financially ruin my family,’” she said.

And another lawmaker shared a story about a person who froze while a group of people assaulted his pregnant wife because he was torn between wanting to protect her and also worrying about facing legal repercussions. That legislator, Rep. Travis Seegmiller, said he’s had a couple of similar experiences, and while he hopes he never has to exert deadly force, he doesn’t think fear of prosecution should hinder him from stopping an attack.

“If that moment comes, we certainly don’t want to be stuck doing a complex legal analysis analysis as to whether it’s OK to use our Second Amendment rights or not,” the St. George Republican said.

During the bill’s committee hearing, lawmakers heard from Michael Clara, a community activist who was fired from his job at the Crossroads Urban Center after he shot repeatedly at a vehicle that rammed into his car. Clara and his attorneys contend he was acting in self defense, but he said he’s still had to go through a lengthy legal process to prove that, and he urged the committee to support the bill.

“I can’t get another job with seven felony counts hanging over my head, but I don’t have the opportunity to present any of the evidence that would exonerate me because of the current system,” he said.

These types of cases are rare, said Lisonbee, noting that legislative analysts have estimated the bill would apply to about 10 cases each year.

Rep. Andrew Stoddard, a prosecutor and Murray Democrat, said he doesn’t object to some aspects of the bill but was concerned about mandating a court hearing that’s not required by law for other affirmative defense situations.

And speaking at the committee hearing earlier this month, Darcy Goddard, a chief policy adviser and deputy district attorney in the Salt Lake County district attorney’s office, said she had “grave concerns” about the bill, worrying that the legal system could be overwhelmed by people wanting to take advantage of the “low standard” to prove they were acting in self defense.

Anti-gun violence advocates have also spoken against the legislation, arguing that the state should be focusing on strengthening its firearms laws rather than relaxing them. In a prepared statement, Mary Ann Thompson, a volunteer with the Utah chapter of Moms Demand Action, said HB227 would allow “people to shoot first and ask questions later” and would increase the likelihood of violence in the state.

The legislation passed the House by a 56-16 vote and is heading to the Senate for consideration.

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