Texas: Bill to seek 'castle doctrine' crime protection
Bill to seek 'castle doctrine' crime protection
Texas may join states that allow deadly force first against intruders
12:00 AM CDT on Friday, October 13, 2006
By BRANDON FORMBY / The Dallas Morning News
The way state Sen. Jeff Wentworth sees it, Texans should be allowed to do whatever is necessary to protect themselves and their property without facing prosecution.
Even if that means using deadly force as a first resort.
Mr. Wentworth, R-San Antonio, this week said he will author a bill that would give potential crime victims broader powers to protect themselves, their relatives and their property. It is patterned after a controversial Florida law passed last year that several states, mostly in the South and Midwest, are copying.
State Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Lewisville, is co-authoring the bill and said in a written statement that the proposal, if passed, means "you enter at your own risk" if you break into someone's home.
Essentially, the bill would legally establish the assumption that someone criminally entering a person's home, business or vehicle is there to cause death or great bodily harm and would allow potential victims to use any force – including deadly force – in retaliation.
The bill would also do away with the state's "duty to retreat" provision, which states that someone may not use deadly force if a reasonable person in the same situation would have retreated. And it would protect people from being sued by the criminals or relatives of criminals they injure or kill.
"If you break into my house with intent to commit a crime, I shouldn't have to calculate, 'Does he have a knife, does he have a gun, is the gun loaded,' " Mr. Wentworth said. "I ought to be able to protect my property and my family without worrying about those other things."
About 14 states – including Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Michigan – have passed similar laws since Florida became the first state to do so last year. Dubbed "castle doctrine" laws, they are a derivative of English common law. The spirit of the castle doctrine has traditionally been upheld in court cases across the country. But Mr. Wentworth wants to see it on the books.
The laws are backed by the National Rifle Association, which gives them the moniker "stand your ground" laws because they allow possible crime victims who are in a place where they have a right to be to fight back without being second-guessed by courts.
"If this becomes law in Texas, it would put the law on the side of the victim, but not the criminal," said Andrew Arulanandam, a spokesman for the NRA.
But gun-control advocates – who have dubbed such bills "shoot first" laws – see things differently. Zach Ragbourn, a spokesman for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said case law already allows people to defend themselves. The castle doctrine laws are so broad, he said, that they allow people to kill someone and then tell law enforcement they were afraid for their safety at the time.
"The law only changes things for the bad guy," Mr. Ragbourn said. "The good guys already had the law on their side. All that's changed is there is now an extra defense for somebody who shoots somebody."
But Mr. Arulanandam said even if the doctrine is law, it doesn't mean law enforcement will take people's word at face value and let killers walk.
"Investigations will go on," he said. "The legal process will continue under this law. That's not how the American justice system works."
Mr. Ragbourn said Florida is already seeing cases in which people are trying to use the broadness of the law to get away with murder.
"It's tying the courts up in knots," he said.
Jerry Dowling, a criminal justice professor at Sam Houston State University, said he doubts the bill would change much because Texas prosecutors and grand juries historically grant wide latitude to people defending themselves. The biggest change the bill would bring, he said, is protecting people from lawsuits for what the criminal code allows them to do.
In cases across the Dallas-Fort Worth area, the legal system typically gives leeway to people who use force because they feel threatened.
A Dallas County jury in August acquitted a Louisiana man of murder after he said he fatally shot a man only because he thought the man was reaching for a gun. He was found not guilty even though a weapon was never recovered from the victim.
Property owners who injure or kill intruders are rarely arrested and typically have grand juries decide whether to criminally charge them.
That was the case when a 25-year-old man was fatally shot while trying to break into a woman's home in Buckner Terrace last year. Police also deferred to a grand jury the case of a church deacon who killed a man who was trying to break into The Church of Revelation in Oak Cliff in 2003.
"It just depends on the facts of the individual case," said Rachel Raya, spokeswoman for the Dallas County district attorney's office.
Mr. Wentworth said Texans and legislators have responded positively to the bill, which he hopes to pre-file next month for the 2007 legislative session.
"I've run into no opposition," Mr. Wentworth said. "Half of the people are surprised to find we don't already have that right."
He said the bill would prevent potential victims from having to second-guess themselves while forcing criminals to think twice before breaking the law.
"I think it will decrease the incentive some people have now to break into some people's houses," he said.