By Bill Cotterell
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (Reuters) - An appeal before the Florida Supreme Court on Tuesday could shift the burden of proof for the state’s "stand your ground" law, relieving gun owners of a legal duty to prove self-defense when they brandish weapons in violent confrontations.
If the high court sides with Jared Bretherick, charged with aggravated assault for pointing a pistol at a man in a road-rage incident, the burden of proof would be shifted to prosecutors to show that a defendant claiming the law's protection did not act in self-defense.
The 2005 law allows citizens to use deadly force when they reasonably perceive that their lives or the lives of others are in danger.
Bretherick was riding with his family on Dec. 29, 2011, when a passing vehicle driven by Derek Dunning nearly sideswiped their SUV near Orlando, court records show.
The Indiana family said Dunning cut them off and stopped his own SUV in front of them, jumping out, and that driver Ronald Bretherick, Jared's father, called 911 and showed his holstered gun to warn the man away.
The Brethericks said Dunning returned to his vehicle and backed it up toward them. Jared Bretherick then took his father’s gun and stood beside their vehicle, where deputies found him pointing the gun at Dunning’s SUV.
No shots were fired. Jared Bretherick said he heard Dunning say he had a gun, although none was found.
A judge denied Bretherick “stand your ground” immunity at a hearing in June 2012.Faced with a mandatory three-year sentence if convicted, Bretherick appealed and a district appellate court asked the state Supreme Court to decide the proof issue.
“If Derek Dunning had put his hands on that car door and attempted entry, this case wouldn’t be here,” Bretherick's attorney, Eric Friday, told the court in opening statements.
State assistant attorney general Kristen Davenport said defendants should no be shielded from trial by “stand your ground” immunity when the circumstances are disputed.
“The defendant is certainly entitled to make this argument to the jury,” she said. “Maybe they’ll believe his version of events. The trial judge didn’t.”
The National Rifle Association has filed a brief supporting Bretherick. It also backed the state's “stand your ground” law, which has drawn nationwide attention.
A new Florida law permits gun owners to display their weapons, or even fire warning shots, if they fear death or injury.
(Editing by Letitia Stein, Mohammad Zargham and Bill Trott)