When is a unanimous vote not unanimous?
Floridians recently learned the answer to that riddle after a now-disputed vote by the Florida Sheriff's Association on the state's controversial "stand your ground" law.
House Speaker Will Weatherford — who lately has professed openness to revising the state's controversial self-defense law — and Attorney General Pam Bondi were curious where the association stood. Polk Sheriff and FSA President Grady Judd asked members at the association's summer conference: Do you support the "stand your ground" law?
In an Aug. 9 press release, Judd proclaimed that members "unanimously … support the Stand Your Ground law as it is currently written."
Technically correct, but wholly misleading.
First, not all of Florida's 67 county sheriffs were on hand for the vote. That includes top cops from several larger urban counties such as Broward, Hillsborough and Orange. Indeed, Orange Sheriff Jerry Demings, who left the session early, told the Sentinel, "Had I been present, I likely would not have supported the vote."
Second, not every sheriff present participated in the voice vote.
Third, Judd's question left no room for nuance in responses, and confounded some sheriffs.
As Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri told the (Lakeland) Ledger: "I would say there was some confusion among some as to what the question was. What I understood was being asked and voted on was the concept of the law, which I support. But I think there's room for discussion on possible changes."
Judd presented the appearance of a united front among sheriffs on the law. That likely undercut legitimate debate on the merits of modifying "stand your ground."
After all, cheerleaders for the law such as Rep. Matt Gaetz — named by Weatherford to lead a committee to examine it — crowed after Judd's declaration: "I think [sheriffs] recognize that Florida is a safer place when our citizens don't have a duty to retreat and run."
Except that's not entirely true. Gualtieri, among others, argues the law shouldn't cover scenarios "where you are the primary aggressor, or when you're using deadly force against somebody who is unarmed."
That's a reasonable check that state Sen. Chris Smith again is trying to cash. The Fort Lauderdale Democrat has introduced a measure to close the so-called "last man standing" loophole. Under his bill, individuals no longer could leave a safe position, confront someone, and then claim self-defense. A Tampa Bay Times probe found that scenario played in nearly 33 percent of cases where defendants successfully invoked "stand your ground."
Judd stands by his statement. He told the Ledger his conference question "was not to cut off the debate."
We sure hope not. The absence of true unanimity among sheriffs is a powerful argument for why the state's review of "stand your ground" must go forward.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun