'Deadly Force' Law Worries Police; It Takes Effect across the State Today, and Supporters Deny It's a License to Kill

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TALLAHASSEE -- It took only two days this summer for the St. Johns County Sheriff's Office to peek into a murder suspect's home computer and find a strong argument against the "deadly force" law that takes effect throughout Florida today.

Detectives say they discovered Travis Steeby, 20, had looked up Senate Bill 436, which passed the Florida Legislature this spring and eases guidelines for use of deadly force when threatened. Steeby initially wasn't charged because detectives say he told them he shot his roommate in self-defense. He's now in the St. Johns County jail awaiting a Thursday arraignment on murder charges.

The new law actually doesn't protect someone if premeditation is involved, but the Steeby case is the perfect example of widespread worry across Florida's law enforcement community about what this could bring. While legislators say the law will reasonably broaden self-defense statutes, sheriffs and prosecutors fear it will actually bring more murders.

"We live in a gray area out here, and legislators don't," St. Johns County Sheriff David Shoar said. "We have to make judgment calls at a 3 a.m. shooting all the time, and laws like this get passed by legislators in their offices who don't think about the implications on the ground. This case is a clear illustration that somebody paid attention to those implications a lot more than they did in Tallahassee."

Starting today the law rearranges the state's self-defense laws by allowing Floridians to use deadly force to protect themselves anywhere they have "a right to be" without first trying to retreat. By doing so, it broadens the "castle doctrine," named for the English common-law tradition that a person has a right to defend their castle, and applies it to public settings. As Senate Bill 436, it passed the Senate and House overwhelmingly and was immediately signed by Gov. Jeb Bush.

It's the gun law the gun lobby wanted. It was drafted by the National Rifle Association, represented in Tallahassee by Marion Hammer, a former national president of the group, and guided by legislators with strong gun-rights records. Both Hammer and the law's House sponsor, Republican Dennis Baxley, say the Steeby case is irrelevant and the new law is solid.

"I've heard of no legitimate fears including this one," Hammer said. "Every law that exists can be abused by someone who is intent upon breaking the law. This is about victims and allowing them to protect themselves from criminals."

Baxley, an Ocala funeral director, said the law has been vetted and discussed with prosecutors.

"The legislation provides protection and the presumption of innocence for any law-abiding citizen," he said. "If he [Steeby] was contemplating the death of someone, he was certainly not under the protection of that law as I would understand it. . . . It's in good shape to protect Florida."

The law's practical effect is difficult to determine. Sheriffs and state attorneys say the legal landscape is unlikely to change dramatically, but it is more possible that people may interpret the law rashly and wrongly, even with innocent intentions. …