27 November 2012

Testing the "Castle Doctrine"

A brief summary of the case from the StarTribune:
A Little Falls-area man has been arrested in connection with the Thanksgiving Day killings of two teenagers after their bodies were discovered in his basement, the Morrison County Sheriff's Office said...

Neighbor John Lange said that Smith's home had been burglarized at least twice before by area teens and that he might have "snapped" this time when he heard intruders enter a bedroom window. The shootings occurred in Smith's basement, Lange said.

Lange said Smith had worked in security and lived with his aging mother until she recently died. Smith volunteered as a Scout leader, paid area teens to work around his house, and allowed Lange's son to practice with his band in his garage, Lange added. "He's a really decent guy. I think he just snapped."
The embedded video, from the AP via the Los Angeles Times, presents the case as viewed by local law enforcement officials.  Wikipedia has a page on the "Castle Doctrine" -
A Castle Doctrine (also known as a Castle Law or a Defense of Habitation Law) is an American legal doctrine that designates a person's abode... as a place in which the person has certain protections and immunities and may in certain circumstances use force, up to and including deadly force, to defend against an intruder without becoming liable to prosecution. Typically deadly force is considered justified, and a defense of justifiable homicide applicable, in cases "when the actor reasonably fears imminent peril of death or serious bodily harm to himself or another"...

The term derives from the historic English common law dictum that "an Englishman's home is his castle". This concept was established as English law by 17th century jurist Sir Edward Coke, in his The Institutes of the Laws of England, 1628. The dictum was carried by colonists to the New World, who later removed "English" from the phrase, making it "a man's home is his castle", which thereby became simply the Castle Doctrine...


  1. A similar law is actually in the Bible. Exodus 22:2-3 says, "If a thief is caught breaking in at night and is struck a fatal blow, the defender is not guilty of bloodshed; but if it happens after sunrise, the defender is guilty of bloodshed."

    The principle behind the law is that if someone breaks into a home at night, they assume the owners are home and sleeping and are ready to kill anyone they encounter. If they break in during the day, they are likely assuming that the people are away.

    The assumption is that a person can use deadly force on an intruder if they have cause to assume their life is threatened.

    1. You're citing the same legal source that says "A marriage is valid only if the wife is a virgin. If she is not, she shall be executed." Deuteronomy 22:13-21.

    2. That's a +1.


    3. Biblical laws come from a different society with very different mores than we do - yes, much harsher in some ways. But overall, the Torah's laws were far more humanitarian than the rest of the Ancient Near East.

      The context of the Deuteronomy quote isn't just marriage. It's the situation of man who falsely accuses his wife of unchastity. If he's lying, he faces flogging, a stiff fine, and a loss of the right of divorce. More than one commentator thinks that the impact of the law was actually to protect women from accusation, because the consequenses for not proving the charge were so high.

  2. Just to follow up and clarify about what I just posted...I certainly wasn't intending to say that the Bible legitimizes the man's actions. The verse in Exodus came to mind as I read about the history of Castle Doctrine in British law.

    I thought what the officer said in the video was good - if the man heard intruders and thought they were a legitimate threat to his life, he had reason to use force against them. But it sounds like he went far beyond into wanton murder, though.

  3. Being from Minnesota, I have heard on the radio an additional reason(s) why he was charged. First, he failed to do everything in his power, including first aid, to do what he could to keep them alive, once they were no longer a threat. And secondly of all, he failed to notify the local police. They only responded to the address when neighbors reported strange behavior coming from the man's address. Both of these are illegal within Minnesota.

  4. Hmm. I was +1-ing the Anonymous comment, not the original poster. Just so y'all know.


  5. Update - FWIW, the young couple have now been tentatively tied to at least one additional home break-in in the city, so this incident doesn't seem to have been a one-off.


    Also: "Smith's brother, Bruce Smith of California, whom Byron Smith called after the shootings, said his brother reported about $10,000 worth of items stolen in an Oct. 27 burglary, including guns, a camera and $3,000 to $4,000 in cash.

    He said the Oct. 27 break-in was the latest in a string of six to eight before the shootings Thanksgiving Day."

  6. It's a terrible, terrible situation.

  7. The police office perfectly elucidated the line between castle doctrine and murder. Once the threat has been neutralized there is no right to go further. I do not believe that the shooter has the requirement to administer first aid, as doing so could put yourself back into danger, but that would vary by state law.

    If you are in this situation, shoot to stop the threat, call the police, monitor for additional threats, when the police arrive put your weapon down and surrender, tell the police only "I was afraid for my life (and/or the life of others). I would like to talk to my attorney." Then exercise your right to remain silent.

  8. Smith, 64, a retired U.S. State Department worker, is charged with second-degree murder in the double shooting, which Wetzel has said was carried out after the teens were disabled by initial shots.

    No excuse for that. That's an execution.

  9. I don't understand why everyone jumps to defense of the thiefs/invaders. He was home, this is a home invasion. If you break into another person's home with the intent to steal from them, expect to risk your life doing so. It's really that simple. Don't steal and you won't get shot. I don't pity the deceased at all, they knew the risks and did it anyway. In the animal world we would call this survival of the fittest and watch Discovery channel shows about it, but when some lowlife breaks into someone's HOME with the intent to steal and ends up dead, some people cry and whine about it. I don't get it.


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