Judge Matthew C. Lucas of Florida Second District Court of Appeal/courtesy photo Judge Matthew C. Lucas of Florida Second District Court of Appeal/courtesy photo

In a decision that could have broad implications, an appeals court has sided with a defendant who argued that a controversial 2017 change to Florida’s “stand your ground” self-defense law should apply to his case.

The ruling, issued Friday by a panel of the Second District Court of Appeal, stemmed from a change that shifted a key burden of proof in “stand your ground” cases from defendants to prosecutors.

The appeals court said the change should apply retroactively to the Hillsborough County case of Tymothy Ray Martin, who was convicted of felony battery in a 2016 altercation involving his girlfriend. Martin had sought to use the “stand your ground” law to be shielded from prosecution, but a judge denied his request in a pretrial hearing.

Martin appealed his conviction, and the appeal was pending when the Legislature and Gov. Rick Scott changed the “stand your ground” law to shift the burden of proof. In ruling Friday that the change should apply retroactively to Martin, the appeals court overturned his conviction and ordered that he receive a new “stand your ground” hearing under the 2017 law.

“If, after the conclusion of that hearing, the circuit court concludes that Mr. Martin is entitled to statutory immunity, it shall enter an order to that effect and dismiss the information [charge] with prejudice,” said the ruling, written by appeals court Judge Matthew Lucas and joined by Judges Darryl Casanueva and Daniel Sleet. “If, on the other hand, the circuit court determines that Mr. Martin is not entitled to immunity, the court shall enter an order reflecting its findings and reinstate Mr. Martin’s conviction.”

The appeals court noted the potential implications of retroactively applying the burden-of-proof change to cases pending in the court system at the time the 2017 law passed, saying it “could impact a significant number of criminal proceedings.” Also, the appeals court asked the Florida Supreme Court to take up the retroactivity issue, a move known as certifying “a question of great public importance” to justices.

The underlying “stand your ground” law says people are justified in using deadly force and do not have a “duty to retreat” if they believe it is necessary to prevent death or great bodily harm. When the defense is successfully raised in pretrial hearings, defendants are granted immunity from prosecution.

The change approved last year by the Legislature and Scott was rooted in a 2015 Florida Supreme Court decision that said defendants had the burden of proof in the pretrial hearings to show they should be shielded from prosecution. With backing from groups such as the National Rifle Association, the 2017 law shifted the burden from defendants to prosecutors to prove whether a self-defense claim is justified.

In Martin’s original pretrial hearing, he had the burden of proving that he should not be prosecuted because he acted in self-defense. After Friday’s ruling, the burden will shift to prosecutors to show that he is not entitled to “stand your ground” immunity.

“Thus, as it now stands, the state [prosecution] bears the burden of disproving, by clear and convincing evidence, a facially sufficient claim of self-defense immunity in a criminal prosecution,” Friday’s ruling said. “On appeal, Mr. Martin argues that this amendment is retroactive in its application, that it applies to his case, and that he is entitled to a new immunity hearing. We agree.”

The burden-of-proof change sparked heavy debate in the Legislature. It also has drawn legal challenges, which last year led to a Miami-Dade County circuit judge declaring it unconstitutional.

Jim Saunders reports for the News Service of Florida.