Senate Democratic Leader Lauren Book (D-Plantation) and Representative Carlos Guillermo Smith (D-Orlando) this week filed legislation to eliminate the so-called “gay/trans panic defense” from being used in Florida to legally defend assaults and lethal attacks on LGBTQIA+ individuals. SB 374/HB 205 would disallow the legal strategy of asking a jury to find that a crime victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity caused the defendant to “panic” and react violently.
“It is discriminatory and unacceptable for LGBTQIA+ individuals to be held responsible for their own assaults or even murders on the grounds of simply being themselves,” says Leader Book. “The current state of the law which allows someone to assault another person simply based on sexual or gender identity cannot stand – the use of a ‘panic’ defense is essentially doing legal gymnastics to defend a hate crime.”
“As a survivor of hate violence, I understand how gay or trans ‘panic defense’ can be used as a legal strategy to justify or excuse violence against the LGBTQ community,” says Representative Smith. “It happened to me. The continued use of panic defense in legal proceedings perpetuates anti-LGBTQ bias and shifts blame onto the victims of violent crimes rather than their perpetrators, which is why Florida must follow the lead of several states who passed laws prohibiting its use in court.”
The American Bar Association called on states to take legislative action to end the use of “panic defenses” in 2013. If Book’s bill is passed and signed into law, Florida would join 15 other states which have enacted “panic defense” bans, including New York, New Jersey, Nevada, Illinois, and California.
Sexual orientation/gender identity consistently rank as the third highest motivator for hate crime incidents behind race and religion, with 1 in 5 LGBTQIA+ individuals experiencing hate crimes in their lifetime. Trans and gender non-conforming individuals are especially vulnerable to violence and lethal attacks. According to the Human Rights Campaign, 2020 was the deadliest year on record with more than 40 trans and gender non-conforming people killed – many were Black or Latinx.
Despite debunking “gay panic disorder,” and its removal from the DSM by the American Psychological Association in 1973, legal defense teams continue to use it. Analysis has shown that in about one-third of cases, charges are reduced for defendants who use the “panic defense.”
This is Leader Book’s second year filing this legislation as part of her pro-LGBTQIA+ legislative agenda, which also includes sponsorship of SCR 278, a resolution calling on the Florida Legislature to formally apologize for enacting the Florida Legislative Investigation Committee, also known as the “Johns Committee” – an investigative body which targeted, intimidated, outed, and even criminalized LGBTQ Floridians, civil rights leaders, and academic leaders in the 1950s and 1960s. This will be Book’s fourth year in a row filing and fighting for an apology for the Johns’ Committee’s taxpayer-funded, State-sanctioned injustices. She has also co-sponsored the Florida Competitive Workforce Act to prohibit employers from discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity.