Today marks the fourth anniversary of the fateful day on which Trayvon Martin made the imprudent and quickly fatal decision to viciously beat (as testified to by eye witnesses) an armed George Zimmerman.

Presumably coincidentally timed with anniversary, Florida has made or is making a couple of substantive changes in its laws covering some key facets of self-defense.

The first change actually made this week is that Florida has removed the crime of aggravated assault from among the gun crimes that fall subject to the state’s infamous “10-20-Life” mandatory minimum sentencing requirement. We’ll cover that change in this post. (We’ve previously written on proposals for this change, here: Changes Proposed to Florida’s Infamous “10-20-Life” Sentencing Law.)

The second change has not yet taken effect, but is advancing through the legislature.  That is the Florida senate approval of a change to the state’s self-defense immunity law that would require state prosecutors to disprove self-defense by clear and convincing evidence in order to deny a defendant immunity from prosecution (and civil suit).  We’ll cover that prospective change in a subsequent post.

For now, let’s take a look at the changes to “10-20-Life” signed into law this week.

Aggravated Assault Removed from “10-20-Life”

The phrase “10-20-Life” has long been the easier to enunciate shorthand label for Florida statute §775.087 Possession or use of weapon; aggravated battery; felony reclassification; minimum sentence.  That statute applies certain mandatory minimum sentences for various types of gun use in conjunction with certain enumerated violent and/or drug crimes.

In general, “10-20-Life” works as follows:

“10”:  Mere possession of a firearm in conjunction with one of the enumerated crimes mandates a minimum sentence of 10 years upon conviction of the charged felony. (In the case of a few of the enumerated crimes, including aggravated assault, the mandatory minimum would be a lesser 3 years.)

“20”: Discharge of a firearm in conjunction with one of the enumerated crimes mandates a minimum sentence of 20 years upon conviction of the charged felony.  This applies even where no one is injured as a result of the firearm being discharged. (There is no “carve out” for any of the enumerated crimes in this instance, and discharge of a firearm in conjunction with aggravated assault carries the 20-year mandatory minimum.)

“Life”: Causing death or grave bodily harm to a person as a result of the discharge of a firearm in conjunction of one of the enumerated crimes mandates a minimum sentence of 25 years to life upon conviction of the charged felony.

Perhaps the case that most powerfully brought “10-20-Life” to the nation’s consciousness was that of Marissa Alexander.  Alexander, in a fit of rage, fired a bullet past the head of her estranged husband as he stood across a room beside his two small children.  Charged with three counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, Alexander was generously offered a three-year plea deal.  Perhaps motivated by the fact that she had only just given birth, Alexander declined the plea deal and chose to go to trial.

Although the media would characterize the shot fired by Alexander as mere “warning shot,” that was “fired into the ceiling,” photos from the scene show the hole where the bullet penetrated the wall behind her husband and his children. (The bullet would embed itself in the ceiling of the next room, after passing through the kitchen wall.)  The children would testify at trial that they thought they were going to die.

Alexander was convicted of all three counts, and as a result fell under the “20” provision of “10-20-Life,” resulting in a cumulative mandatory minimum sentence of 60 years.

That first trial’s verdict would be properly overturned for reasons having to do with an imperfect self-defense instruction, and Alexander was remanded for re-trial.  There was little doubt, however, that Alexander would be convicted even with a proper self-defense instruction.  When she was once again offered a three year plea deal, this time with most of the three years having already been served, Alexander wisely accepted.

There were also numerous other cases in which Florida residents wielded or fired guns in purported self-defense, and suddenly found themselves facing the prospect of decades of a mandatory minimum sentence. Strictly speaking, of course, all of these people could have chosen to argue self-defense at trial, as Alexander had, and if successful would have faced no sentence at all.  “10-20-Life,” however, greatly increased the consequences of losing that self-defense argument at trial.

This past Wednesday, however, Florida governor Rick Scott signed into law SB 228, with the effect that aggravated assault was removed as one of the enumerated felonies of “10-20-Life,” reports by the website “Florida Politics” and other sources. Moving forward, persons charged with aggravated assault in Florida need fear only the normal (and still substantial) sentence for that offense if they are convicted (and may benefit from the trial judge’s discretion in sentencing), and not the mandatory minimum sentencing of “10-20-Life.”

–-Andrew, @LawSelfDefense

Attorney Andrew Branca and his firm Law of Self Defense have been providing internationally-recognized expertise in American self-defense law for almost 20 years in the form of blogging, books, live seminars & online training (both accredited for CLE), public speaking engagements, and individualized legal consultation.
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