Florida’s Stand Your Ground law is in the spotlight this week as Curtis Reeves, a 73-year-old retired Tampa Police Department captain, is fighting for his life a second time in the last three years. This time, Reeves is fighting to avoid a trial for second-degree murder and aggravated battery charges stemming from a fatal shooting in a Wesley Chapel movie theater in January 2014.
Reeves testified Tuesday on his behalf at a hearing to determine whether or not the criminal charges against him should be dropped in accordance with the controversial Stand Your Ground law or face trial for murder. In his testimony at the hearing, Reeves described how he tried to de-escalate what began as a verbal confrontation. Reeves further testified that he feared for his life when the 27-year-old moviegoer sitting in front of him became physically abusive after swearing at him.
The altercation began as Reeves and his wife were preparing to watch a matinee of Lone Survivor at the Cobb Grove 16 cinema in Wesley Chapel. The couple sitting in front of them were younger and as the previews began Reeves was bothered by the fact that the younger man, later identified as 43-year-old Chad Oulson, was using his cell phone. According to Reeves’ testimony, Reeves asked him politely to stop and Oulson became verbally abusive. Reeves testified on Tuesday (but didn’t mention it during the initial investigation) that he went to seek the assistance of management. Upon his return, Oulson glared at him and the verbal altercation escalated. According to Reeves, Oulson turned around in his seat and attempted to climb over his seat to attack Reeves. That’s when Reeves pulled out his revolver and fatally shot Oulson in the chest.
“When I looked up, he was coming over the seat at me, across from where my wife was,” Reeves said, “and I saw just a snapshot of something dark in his hand. Almost immediately, I saw what I perceived to be a glow from a light screen right in front of my face, and I was hit in the face.”
At the center of the hearing is whether Reeves’ actions were justifiable under Florida’s controversial Stand Your Ground law (Fla. Stat. 776.013) which governs the use of justifiable force to defend oneself. The principle that a person may use deadly force in self-defense if he or she reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm has been the law in Florida for well over a century. See Lovett v. State, 30 Fla. 142, 163-164 (Fla. 1892). Rather than creating a new defense, Stand Your Ground broadens the scope of a self-defense claim by establishing a general “no duty to retreat” rule.
Supporters say the Stand Your Ground law extends necessary legal protection to people who use lethal force in the face of grave danger. Critics say it creates a dangerous loophole for people to escape criminal charges. In this case, Reeves is a retired police officer who is well aware or should be well aware of when defensive deadly force is required or at least allowed.