Attorney Louis Bonham writes:
After the hash made by the Florida judiciary in the Zimmerman case, you could be forgiven if you’re a bit cynical about Florida courts and self defense cases. On paper, Florida law – especially its commonly misunderstood “Stand Your Ground” law – is very favorable to self defense. As the Zimmerman case starkly demonstrated, however, judges and prosecutors will not always follow the law, especially if there are political points to be scored. Today yields one of those decisions that show how the law is supposed to work, albeit somewhat belatedly: Mobley v. State of Florida. Here are the facts as presented . . .
Gabriel Mobley had joined a friend for drinks and food after work. Before going into the restaurant, he secured his legally carried handgun in the glovebox of his car, believing it was illegal to bring a firearm into an establishment that served alcohol. During the evening, Mobley’s friend had an altercation in the restaurant with two other men, during and after which Mobley attempted to act as peacemaker. Subsequently, after they thought the other men had left, Mobley and his friend left the restaurant.
The court’s opinion described what happened:
The events that transpired next were captured on a security camera recording made outside the restaurant, and, for the most part, are beyond dispute. The recording shows that at 23:52:15, Mobley, wearing only a sleeveless tee shirt, exited the Chili’s front door and went to his vehicle parked only feet away, but mostly outside the security camera’s viewing range. There, Mobley, as subsequent footage confirms, donned a sweat shirt, because, according to Mobley, it was chilly that night. He also retrieved his gun and put it in a holster that he wore around his waist.
Less than a minute after Mobley left the restaurant, Chico and the third man in their party exited the front door. Chico was joined by Mobley who walked with Chico to his nearby car. There the two remained for approximately thirty seconds until, at 23:53:38, Mobley stepped onto the sidewalk near the front fender of Chico’s car. Approximately twenty seconds later, Chico joined him on the sidewalk where the two smoked a cigarette.
Four seconds after Chico joined Mobley on the sidewalk, Jason Gonzalez can be seen rapidly approaching from Mobley’s and Chico’s right. Four seconds after that, Jason delivered a vicious punch to Chico’s face which fractured Chico’s eye socket. Jason then can be seen to dance backward, hands raised in a fighter’s pose, and within four seconds of landing the punch on Chico advance forward toward Mobley.
Mobley reacted by raising his arm and hand to ward Jason off. Two seconds later, as Jason steps back from Mobley, Roly can be seen rushing up from the rear of the restaurant to join Jason in what Mobley testified he believed to be a renewed attack on both himself and Chico. At this juncture, as Roly neared Jason, who was only feet from both Mobley and Chico, Mobley testified that he saw Roly reach under his long, baggy shirt. Believing that Roly was reaching for a weapon to use in an attack, Mobley drew his gun and shot at Roly hitting both Roly and Jason.
This entire series of events, from the time Jason first comes into view on the sidewalk until the first shot was fired, took only twelve seconds. After being shot, Jason turned and fled toward his (or Roly’s) car to collapse with a gunshot wound to the chest and die. Roly, hit four times, fell to the ground near the restaurant’s door where he was assisted by the third man in their party who had been sitting at the bar. Roly later died at a local hospital. Although no weapons were found on Roly’s body, two knives were found on the ground near where he fell.
Mobley cooperated with police, and after being held for a number of hours and giving a statement was released without being charged. Subsequently, a different investigator was assigned the case, and Mobley was arrested and charged with two counts of murder.
Unlike George Zimmerman, Mobley actually asserted the “stand your ground” defense permitted by Florida law. Under this defense, the trial court conducts a “mini trial” before the actual trial to determine whether, in using deadly force, the defendant reasonably believed that such force was necessary “to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the imminent commission of a forcible felony.” If the court finds, based on the circumstances as they appeared to the defendant at the time, that a reasonable and prudent person would have acted similarly, then the charges must be dismissed.
After holding a hearing, the trial court determined that it did not believe Mobley reasonably believed that deadly force was necessary, because Mobley never actually saw a weapon and because it believed Mobley should have brandished his gun, fired a warning shot, or warned the attackers to stop because he had a gun. It thus refused to dismiss the charges. Mobley appealed this refusal, and a Florida appeals court stayed his trial until it could address the issue.
In deciding that Mobley was, indeed, within his rights, the court’s opinion is a full-throated recognition of self defense law. It flatly rejected the suggestion that Mobley was required to warn, brandish his weapon, or fire warning shots, noting that Florida law requires none of these but specifically allows the use of deadly force if the other legal circumstances are met. It further held that under the totality of the circumstances, the evidence showed that a reasonably prudent person would reasonably have believed that deadly force was necessary, concluding:
It may have been more prudent for Mobley and Chico to skitter to their cars and hightail it out of there when they had the chance; however, as even the State concedes and the court below recognized, Mobley and Chico had every right to be where they were, doing what they were doing and they did nothing to precipitate this violent attack.
The only relevant inquiry was whether, given the totality of the circumstances leading up to the attack, the appearance of danger was so real that a reasonably cautious and prudent person under the same circumstances would have believed that the danger could be avoided only through the use of deadly force.
Because the preponderance of the evidence demonstrates that had the proper standard been applied, Mobley’s use of deadly force was justified, the motion to dismiss should have been granted.
From a legal standpoint, such a decision was more than a bit unusual. Typically, factual decisions of a district court on a preliminary matter like this are afforded quite a bit of deference by the appellate courts, especially where the issue can be revisited at trial. Kudos to the court for not taking the easy way out.