Controversial proposals that would allow liquor to be sold in grocery stores and shift the burden of proof in “stand your ground” self-defense cases were set up Thursday to be among the first items the Senate could approve when the annual legislative session begins next month.
The Rules Committee voted 7-4 for a proposal (SB 106) that would end a Depression-era law requiring liquor stores and bars to be separated from groceries and other retail goods, an issue commonly referred to as the “liquor wall.”
The committee then, in an 8-2 vote, supported a National Rifle Association-backed measure (SB 128) that would place the burden of proof on prosecutors during pre-trial hearings in “stand your ground” cases.
“If you are the government and you don’t have sufficient evidence in front of a judge to convince a judge to move forward to trial, then you aren’t going to win the trial,” said Sen. Rob Bradley, a Fleming Island Republican who is sponsoring the “stand your ground” bill.
The proposal stems from a Florida Supreme Court ruling in 2015 that said defendants have the burden of proof to show they should be shielded from prosecution under the “stand your ground” law. In “stand your ground” cases, pre-trial evidentiary hearings are held to determine whether defendants should be immune from prosecution.
Opponents maintain the measure would put an end to cases before all the facts are revealed and contend that the “stand your ground” law has disproportionate effects, as it is used more successfully as a defense when white shooters kill African-Americans.
Sen. Perry Thurston, a Fort Lauderdale Democrat who is an attorney, said that while he’s argued self-defense in court, the proposed change is unnecessary, fails to address needed criminal-justice reforms and will “open a floodgate of litigation.”
“If you pass it, I’ll use it, my colleagues will use it, they’ll clog up the court, the state will be put to an undue burden on these type of cases,” Thurston said. “It will happen. If an attorney doesn’t do it, he will be charged with a failure to practice.”
Bradley’s proposal, which has the support of the Florida Public Defender Association, was approved by the Senate in a 24-12 vote last year, but failed to advance through the House.
The annual legislative session starts March 7, and Senate and House committees are moving forward with bills in preparation. The “stand your ground” and liquor bills had earlier cleared other committees and are now positioned to go to the full Senate.
The liquor-wall measure, which has failed to advance in past sessions, pits retailers Wal-Mart and Target, both in favor of repealing the Depression-era law, against supermarket giant Publix and liquor-store chain ABC Fine Wine & Spirits.
Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater Republican, said he opposes the measure as it would allow 16-years-olds who work in grocery stores to have access to liquor. He said he’s never heard anyone complain “about a lack of access to alcoholic beverages.”
“We’ve had a process set up that nobody cares about, except a couple of large international corporations who want to get into that business in Florida in their stores,” Latvala said.
Sen. Wilton Simpson, a Trilby Republican who also voted against the bill, withdrew an amendment — after NRA lobbyist Marion Hammer objected — that would have allowed counties to ask voters if businesses that sell firearms and ammunition should be prohibited from also selling liquor.
“The box stores are the only place in a lot of these rural areas where residents can buy guns and ammunition,” Hammer told the committee. “If you give the ability to a box store, that is profit oriented, to decide whether or not to give up guns, so that they can sell hard liquor in those stores, I’m afraid that’s going to be to the detriment of people who want to exercise their constitutional right to keep and bear arms. Because these box stores are going to opt for the profit margin every time.”
The committee rejected a proposal by Latvala that would have required county governments to further allow the “wall to come down.”
“Different parts of our state have different mores,” Latvala said. “Some places in Florida you still can’t buy alcohol on a Sunday.”
The committee, however, approved an amendment that would require small bottles, 6.8 ounces or less, to be displayed only behind the counter.
Despite intense media and lobbying attention on the liquor bill, sponsor Anitere Flores, R-Miami, acknowledged the proposal isn’t among the “top 10 or top 100,” issues facing the Legislature.
“I look forward to the passage of this bill and not having to deal a whole lot more with this issue once it passes the Senate,” Flores said.