SALT LAKE CITY — A bill proposing an amendment to Utah's self-defense statute, specifying that a person is not required to retreat from an aggressor even when escape is possible, narrowly passed the House Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee with a favorable recommendation Friday.
The body voted 6-4 to recommend HB259, the so-called "stand your ground" bill, which proposes to amend Utah's self-defense law to state explicitly that a person who exercises self-defense while being attacked is under no legal requirement to retreat, "even if safety could be achieved by retreating."
The bill also adds that "the failure to retreat may not be introduced as evidence" in a criminal case. It adds language barring juries and judges from considering a person's failure to retreat with regard to "whether (that) person acted reasonably" in a self-defense scenario.
David Spatafore, a lobbyist for the Utah Chiefs of Police Association, implored legislators not to support HB259, saying police chiefs "are still not comfortable with this bill."
The bill's passage could send the wrong message to would-be vigilantes, Spatafore argued.
"It could embolden some to act when they are not required to act in that certain way," he said.
Any law that justifies use of force should be held to a stringent standard, Spatafore said. Civilians are not trained to know whether to flee or fight within a matter of moments during a confrontation, he said.
"Law enforcement officers are trained to make those decisions in a split second," Spatafore said. "The average (person) is not. And yet we’re giving them the same or similar (permissions) without giving them the proper training."
Connor Boyack, president of Libertas Institute, a libertarian-leaning think tank, disagreed with Spatafore's assessment. He said civilians are entitled to the same liberties in self-defense situations as police officers, regardless of training.
"(Civilians) have the right to self-defense. We extend that right to law enforcement to act on our collective behalf," he said.
Boyack voiced his support of the bill, saying it had a narrow scope that is "only clarifying the existing legislative intent."
Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, shared concerns that the law will inspire people to act on prejudicial impulses when they feel vulnerable during an encounter.
"My concern is when my son walks out that front door with his friends and someone feels like they’re being aggressive their safety might be compromised," she said. "The things they experience with our current political climate scares me."
In his presentation to the committee, Rep. Cory Maloy, R-Lehi, said he wanted to assure his fellow lawmakers that the bill doesn't give people any license to initiate physical confrontations.
"There’s no room for provoking violence or provoking aggression or being an aggressor yourself," Maloy said. "We are not advocating any kind of aggression at all. We are talking about protecting the rights of people who are completely innocent."
Mitch Vilos, a Utah attorney who represents clients in self-defense cases and co-authored the book "Self Defense Laws of All 50 States," told the committee that insufficient self-preservation statutes have "a chilling effect on the right to defend yourself."
Moroni Benally, co-founder of the Utah League of Native American Voters, echoed Romero's worries in his brief remarks to the committee. Benally said he believes there are misguided self-defense laws in the U.S. that "have unintended consequences for people who look like me."
The vote was split along gender lines, with Republican Rep. Becky Edwards, North Salt Lake, joining Romero and Democratic Reps. Sandra Hollins, Salt Lake City, and Elizabeth Weight, West Valley City.
Republican Reps. Lee Perry, Perry; Edward Redd, Logan; Steve Eliason, Sandy; Adam Gardiner, West Jordan; Kelly Miles, Ogden; and Mike Winder, West Valley City, all voted to send the bill to the full House with a favorable recommendation.