(CNN)Florida police officers can justify using deadly force and seek immunity from prosecution through the state's "stand your ground" self-defense law just like anyone else in the state, the Supreme Court of Florida recently ruled.
'Stand your ground' immunity also applies to Florida police, court rules
The immunity is a key feature: "Stand your ground" lets judges declare someone immune from prosecution if they find certain facts in favor of the killer in pretrial hearings, avoiding trial altogether in a disputed shooting.
Police officers already had been able to claim justification through a police-specific self-defense law, but in a disputed killing, those arguments had to be carried to trial.
"Law enforcement officers are eligible to assert Stand Your Ground immunity, even when the use of force occurred in the course of making a lawful arrest," the state's high court wrote in its 7-0 decision on Thursday.
One officer's attorney said the decision is groundbreaking and will let Florida law enforcement officers work with less fear of wrongful prosecution. An opposing attorney in the case called the result a travesty and warned it gives a judge too much power to dismiss even cases where grand juries decide an officer should be charged.
The ruling involves a 2013 shooting in which a Broward County sheriff's deputy killed a black man he said pointed a weapon at him, a weapon that turned out to be an unloaded air rifle.
A grand jury indicted Deputy Peter Peraza with manslaughter, punishable by up to 30 years in prison, for the death of Jermaine McBean, a 33-year-old information technology engineer.
Here's what led to the shooting: McBean had bought an air rifle at a pawn shop and carried it, unloaded, as he walked back to his Oakland Park apartment complex, according to court documents. His family contends the air rifle was in a plastic bag, but the bag blew off as he walked home.
Someone called 911 to report McBean walking around with what appeared to be a gun. Peraza and two other deputies arrived behind him and commanded him to stop, but McBean kept walking. His family said he kept walking because he was wearing ear buds and listening to music.
What happened next is in dispute.
In a pretrial evidentiary hearing, a judge found that McBean, after walking into his apartment complex with the deputies still behind him, brought the air rifle over his head, turned toward the deputies and pointed the gun at them.
Peraza, perceiving the rifle was being aimed at him, fired his gun three times and shot McBean twice, killing him, the trial judge found.