November 20, 2007
ABC News recently reported on an incident in Pasadena, Texas last week and captured on a 911 tape where zealous gun owner, Joe Horn, noticed his neighbor’s home was being burglarized.Relying on the Texas “Stand Your Ground” law, the neighbor ran next door, shot and killed the two burglars despite pleas for patience from the 911 operator.
In 2006, the Georgia legislature with Senate Bill 396 enacted a “Stand Your Ground” law similar to the one in Texas. O.C.G.A. sections 16-3-2 and 51-11-1 provide that a person has the right to meet force with force, including deadly force, in defense of one’s self, one’s home or other property.These laws provide immunity from both prosecution and civil tort actions.Sixteen other states have enacted similar legislation, expanding the legal boundaries of self-defense that previously required a duty to retreat.
For example, if a homeowner is confronted by a burglary in progress at one’s home, the homeowner could shoot to kill, and would be free from prosecution or a wrongful death action brought by the burglar’s family.Interestingly, Georgia case law already provided that one with a reasonable fear of danger to his or her life could use lethal force to protect their home or property.The new statute goes a bit either, allowing one to use lethal force even outside the home to protect any property. Further, by providing immunity, the shooter has no burden to establish self-defense
The “Stand Your Ground” law originated from lobbying by the National Rifle Association and was first enacted in Florida.The NRA’s position is this type of legislation takes away the duty to run and allows victims to stand their ground.Further, immunity from civil and criminal penalties protects victims from being second guessed by the legal system. Supporters of this legislation say it is an answer to rising violence.In 2006 the FBI reported 2.18 million home burglaries in the US.Gun advocates say that due to rising violence, innocent victims must regain control.
Critics of the law argue the legislation encourages vigilantism and makes it more likely that confrontations will turn deadly.The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence argues the provisions are too broad and, in fact, empower the most aggressive members of society.The Brady Campaign has referred to this legislation as “Shoot First, Ask Questions Later” bills.Georgians for Gun Safety advocated against the law, claiming the legislation broadened the concept of self-defense in the minds of citizens and in the minds of criminals.
What makes the Texas case interesting is that the Joe Horn shot and killed two burglars of his neighbor’s property.Thus, by shooting to protect someone else’s property, he might not be entitled to immunity. The 911 tape recording does also reflect a bit of vigilantism, as he ignores the operator’s plea to wait for the police while he shouts to the burglars, “Move, you’re dead!”
After Georgia’s "Stand Your Ground" law was enacted, an 84-year-old homeowner in Augusta, Georgia shot and wounded a 24-year-old burglar of his backyard tool shed.The homeowner lay in wait for the burglar who had been routinely stealing yard equipment. Thanks to the “Stand Your Ground” law the octogenarian did not have to answer for any civil or criminal penalties.
For those interested in legal history, common law did not allow one to use lethal force in the protection of one’s property.For example, the homeowner could not set a deadly trap for an anticipated home invader.One could however, use reasonable force to prevent a crime where there was a threat to self or property.
Obviously, changes in the law create uncharted territory for the legal system.Can you use lethal force to defend your neighbor’s territory?Can you shoot a family member who is "borrowing" your car?Can you shoot a burglar stealing a hubcap off your car in a parking lot?The court system will likely be called upon to address the intent of this legislation and its effects in varying situations.
Wrongful death actions arising out of violence are not uncommon.In certain contexts insurance policies may even provide coverage for these types of suits.If you have any questions about new laws and their impact or if you have a potential wrongful death claim, contact the law office of Robert N. Katz for a consultation.