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Understanding Self Defense In Florida: A Primer

Self defense is a widely-discussed topic in Florida, but it is also not a widely-understood topic. Although people intrinsically understand the moral right to defend one’s self against attack, the legal ramifications are not as intuitive.

Affirmative Defense

In Florida, self defense is used in court as an affirmative defense. An affirmative defense is an argument used by a defendant to justify his or her act as being necessary despite being against the law. Self defense in Florida is claimed when a defendant is charged with a violent act (assault, battery, homicide, etc.) and wishes to argue that the violent act was reasonably necessary in light of the situation.

Non-Deadly Force And Deadly Force

Florida recognizes self defense as an affirmative defense when used in situations of non-deadly force and deadly force.

Non-deadly force is force that isn’t likely to cause death or great bodily harm. Examples include striking with a fist or other body part or pushing another person away physically. Florida recognizes non-deadly force as an affirmative defense when a defendant reasonably believes that force is necessary in defending against another person’s imminent use of unlawful force. Florida does not require a defendant to attempt to escape the situation first, which is known as a “duty to retreat.”

Deadly force is a permissible affirmative defense in situations when a “forcible felony” is imminent, such as kidnapping, burglary, assault, or murder. Florida courts allow self defense to be claimed in situations of deadly force when the defendant reasonably believes imminent death or great bodily harm is about to occur without his or her violent action.

Stand Your Ground

Florida somewhat controversially modified its laws on self defense in 2005 when the state legislature passed the first “stand your ground” in America. In a nutshell, the statute allowed individuals to use force if they reasonably believe their actions will prevent death or great bodily harm without first being required to retreat from an area the defendant is legally allowed to be. Almost two dozen US states followed Florida’s lead on stand your ground laws in the intervening years.

Raising The Issue

Defendants who wish to use self defense as an affirmative defense against a violent crime must first formally advise the court that it wishes to do so. The way this is done is by “raising the issue” at a pretrial hearing or at trial. When the affirmative defense of self defense is raised in court, the judge must decide whether the actions in question were justified. If so, the judge must dismiss the case. If not, the case will proceed and the defendant may continue with the self defense claim until the case goes to a jury, at which point the jury may find the defendant justified and acquit him or her on those grounds.

Burden Of Proof

Florida law was lately revised to shift the burden of proof to the prosecution in pretrial hearings once the issue of self defense is raised. In this case, the prosecution must show that the use of force was not justified for the case to proceed to a trial on the merits. But this change was halted by a Florida state court judge on constitutional grounds shortly after the law was passed, so the issue is yet to be settled.


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