TAMPA — A vote last week by the Florida Sheriffs Association on the state's stand your ground self-defense law wasn't as decisive as it was declared to be, according to several Florida sheriffs. The vote, and the announcement by association president Sheriff Grady Judd of Polk County, came just days after state House Speaker Will Weatherford said he was looking for input from law enforcement on whether changes in the law are needed. In a news release, Judd said Florida sheriffs had voted “unanimously ... to support the Stand Your Ground law as it is currently written.” Asked later whether that was the thrust of the vote, Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri chuckled and said, “Not really.”
“I would say there was some confusion among some as to what the question was,” Gualtieri said. “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.” The Sheriffs Association's opinion matters, in part, because the only other state law enforcement association to take a stand — the Florida Association of Prosecuting Attorneys — opposes the law and has done so since it was passed in 2005. According to some sheriffs who attended the Sheriffs Association's conference in Marco Island Aug. 5-6, where the vote took place, it didn't include all the state's 67 county sheriffs and wasn't unanimous. It was a voice vote taken without a written motion, they said, and not necessarily a statement of support for the law “as written.” Among those absent were several sheriffs of large, urban counties, including Hillsborough, Orange and Broward. The sheriffs of both Broward and Orange told the Tribune the law needs changes, and Hillsborough Sheriff David Gee said he “wouldn't have voted that way without hearing the state attorneys out on that issue.” In an interview Friday, Judd denied the announcement was in any way misleading, saying that the vote “was a resounding yes,” and that it was correctly described as unanimous because there weren't any “no” votes. “What we wrote in (the news release) was correct,” he said. “The Florida Sheriffs Association speaks as a united voice. That doesn't mean that sheriffs don't have their individual positions.” The law has been the subject of a sit-in at the state capitol and has drawn national criticism to Florida since the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the killing of Trayvon Martin. Breaking ranks with other legislative leaders and Gov. Rick Scott, Weatherford, a Wesley Chapel Republican, said recently he'll ask a House subcommittee to hold a hearing on whether the law needs to be changed. The Sheriffs Association vote also got national attention. Judd said he raised the issue during the meeting because of Weatherford's call for law enforcement views. “Will Weatherford said he wanted to know where law enforcement stood on the issue,” Judd said. “As president of the association, I wanted to know what the association's position was.” Weatherford said he supports the law, but would be willing to consider changes if there were a “consistent, unified” opinion from the law enforcement community seeking changes. Following up its initial announcement, sheriffs association spokeswoman Nanette Shimpf sought to clarify the vote, saying, “the 57 sheriffs present convened an executive session ... to discuss various law enforcement issues,” during which the vote was taken. But in an interview, Shimpf said 57 was the number of sheriffs registered for the conference, not necessarily the number voting. She couldn't provide a list of attendees. Gee, among others, attended the conference but left before the vote, which came late in the second day of the conference. Attendees were coming and going from the meeting room during the session, others said. Gualtieri said the number voting was “a lot less than actually came to the conference.” Judd said he was told 57 sheriffs were present for the vote, but, “Whether there were 57 or 54 or 49, there were no nay votes cast. It was 100 percent unanimous.” “It wasn't tepid — it was a rousing support,” added Judd, who personally supports the law. Judd said stand your ground wasn't listed on an agenda for the conference, but that sheriffs knew the session where he brought it up — devoted to items of common interest to law enforcement — “is one of the most important meetings” during the association's conferences. At least two sheriffs who were present, Gualtieri and Volusia Sheriff Ben Johnson, told the Tribune they didn't speak in the voice vote, in effect abstaining. Johnson said in a written statement he stands behind the Sheriff's Association position, but personally believes citizens “when out in the open and facing a threat ... should attempt to retreat if possible before using lethal force” — a requirement stand your ground eliminated from Florida law. Flagler County Sheriff Jim Manfre, who wasn't available to discuss the question with the Tribune, has told the News Service of Florida he disagrees with at least parts of the law and thinks they should be repealed. “When legislation confuses people, that begs for repeal,” he said. According to experts on the law, including Hillsborough County State Attorney Mark Ober and others, Florida law before stand your ground required an individual to retreat from a threat, if retreat was safely possible, before using deadly force in response. That requirement to retreat, however, never applied to a person in his own home, a provision called the “castle doctrine,” according to Mike Sinacore, Ober's chief assistant. The stand your ground law eliminated the duty to retreat when outside the home for anyone engaged in lawful activity in any place that person has a right to be. “It took the old castle doctrine, where you did not have to retreat within your own home, and extended it to wherever the person was,” Sinacore said. In interviews, some sheriffs who back stand your ground, including John Rutherford of Duval County, said they agree with its provision that there should be no duty to retreat even outside the home. But some, including Leon County Sheriff Larry Campbell, defended stand your ground by saying there should be no duty retreat within the home, even though that was already the case before the law was passed. Gualtieri said he believes the law needs to be changed to make clear that it doesn't apply “in a case where you are the primary aggressor, or when you're using deadly force against somebody who is unarmed.” He said discussion of the law before the vote was “very quick ... with no discussion of the elements of the law (and) no framed question” for the vote. Asked about the Sheriffs Association announcement of the vote, Gualtieri said he saw no “intent of deception” in the announcement, but “some ambiguity and misunderstanding.” [email protected] 813-259-7761 Correction:The Pinellas County Sheriff is Bob Gualtieri. An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to him as Bill Gualtieri.