Alaska's 'stand your ground' bill faces new scrutiny

JUNEAU — A Wasilla House member said Monday the Legislature shouldn't retreat from his bill to give Alaskans greater rights to kill in self-defense despite the furor over a similar law in Florida.

Republican Rep. Mark Neuman said his "stand your ground" bill still has the support of Alaskans. The bill has been in the Senate since it passed the House with overwhelming support in 2011. The National Rifle Association issued an email alert Monday afternoon, urging members to "contact the Senate Finance Committee TODAY" in support of the "vital" measure, House Bill 80.

But an opponent of the bill, Sen. Hollis French, an Anchorage Democrat, said opposition is building. He and others, including a long-term Anchorage prosecutor, say Alaskans already have a broad right to self-defense. Neuman's bill would only give more rights to criminals, they said, making it harder to prove manslaughter or murder charges.

"I talk to families of homicide victims all the time," said James Fayette, an assistant district attorney in Anchorage who was voicing his own view, not the official one. "Please don't make me explain to them that the one thing the Alaska Legislature accomplished in 2012 was the ability to make it easier to kill people."

The Florida case, in which a neighborhood watch volunteer killed an unarmed teenager and then claimed self-defense, is adding fuel to the opposition. Rep. Max Gruenberg, an Anchorage Democrat who voted in favor of the bill on April 9, 2011, when it passed the House 33-6, said he now regrets his vote.

"It's in the Senate -- hopefully it'll die over there," Gruenberg said. A similar measure of Neuman's did just that in 2010.

Neuman's bill would add a dozen words to the state's self-defense law. It says a person can use deadly force "in any place where the person has a right to be." That could be a sidewalk, a highway, the woods or on private property as long as the person isn't trespassing.

Current law already protects the use of deadly defensive force inside a person's residence and workplace, or anywhere to protect a child or "the person's household."

Neuman's bill would primarily affect the application of current law to armed defense in public places. As it stands now, a person encountering a threatening situation has a "duty to retreat" -- the requirement that an armed defender attempt to walk away from a potentially deadly encounter.

"All we're doing in House Bill 80 is to say that those same rights that you have with your 'castle doctrine' -- that you have in your home -- they follow you when you walk down the street -- the right to be able to protect yourself, that there's not a duty to retreat," Neuman said in an interview Monday. "Our laws say right now that you have to retreat. I don't feel that that's right."

But current law only requires retreat in some situations -- when leaving the area can be done "with complete personal safety and with complete safety as to others being defended." Otherwise, the law says, Alaskans now can stand their ground.

"You really do have a right of self-defense -- every human being has that," said French, a former Anchorage prosecutor. "If you're attacked, no matter where you are attacked, you can use the appropriate means to defend yourself. However, when you're out in the world, before you do that, if you can get away with complete safety as to yourself and to anybody else, you should probably do that."

French chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, which last week passed out Neuman's bill and sent it on to the Finance Committee. French and Sen. Joe Paskvan, D-Fairbanks, voted "no recommendation." Two other committee members, Sen. John Coghill, R-North Pole, and Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, gave a "do pass" recommendation. Wielechowski is one of two Democrats in the Legislature to co-sponsor the bill. All 10 Republican senators are co-sponsors, as were 11 Republican House members.

Neuman's bill, tapping into Alaska's deep-rooted sense of gun rights, was moving in relative obscurity until the Florida case burst onto the national scene last week with the release of 911 tapes and the announcement of a Justice Department civil rights investigation. While the facts of how George Zimmerman came to kill Trayvon Martin are still in dispute, the swiftness of the Sanford, Fla., police department's acceptance of Zimmerman's claim of self-defense has put Florida's stand-your-ground law under national scrutiny.

According to ProPublica, a website specializing in investigative journalism, 24 states have stand-your-ground laws. Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton, a Democrat, just vetoed one in his state. New Hampshire Gov. John Lynch, also a Democrat, vetoed one last fall but the legislature there overrode him. Iowa Democrats walked out of their legislature to prevent a vote on procedural grounds.

In bringing the issue to Alaska, Neuman said he could not point to an example of a person improperly charged with a crime for engaging in self-defense in a public place.

"We purposefully did not try and go and look at any particular court cases," he said. "If this would've already been in place, would it have changed any particular case? Hell, I don't know that, I don't think anybody could ever say that."

Neuman said he got the wording for his bill from the NRA. An NRA lobbyist, Brian Judy, was the first person to testify for the bill when it was heard by the House Judiciary Committee on Feb. 9, 2011.

The Alaska Attorney General's Office initially estimated the bill would cost the state an additional $450,000 a year because of the complexities it would add to the law. The office has since changed the budget impact to "indeterminate" but said it would result in "an increase in cases, to both screen referrals and prosecute those that are accepted."

French said in an interview that the law is trying to fix something that isn't broken.

"In court, already the odds are stacked in favor someone asserting self-defense," he said. Police and prosecutors "can tell in every given situation who the woman is who's carrying her grocery bag out to the car. They can tell the difference between those people and drug dealers and gang-bangers."

Neuman's bill would upset the balance to such a degree, French said, "you'll see bad people beginning to assert claims of self-defense and using them in ways that the proponents of the bill have not really thought through."

Self-defense comes up frequently in criminal cases. In 2010, the attorney general's office said, the criminal division counted 1,155 cases in which self-defense was a potential justification for a killing or inflicted injury.

Neuman said if his bill passed, it still wouldn't protect someone who was committing a crime or who was engaging in mutual combat.

But Fayette said it would complicate prosecutions for road rage and gang conflicts.

"The gang guys are the best example, guys hanging out in the parking lot at 3 a.m.," he said. He can hear it now when someone is arrested for assault or homicide: "I thought I saw a gun."

"That's the problem," he said. "It's an overbroad statute."

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