Saturday, November 12, 2011

Can a store clerk shoot and kill a fleeing thief legally?

According to this week's "Dan Rather Reports" on HDNet, 27 states have enacted "Castle Laws" that enable home residents and store clerks to use deadly force to defend themselves. The law was also cited by a Texan who shot two fleeing burglars in the back, killing them. They were unarmed illegal immigrants robbing the man's neighbor's house. No one questions the fact that the police would not have arrived there in time to stop them.

In another case a man stole a 6-pack of beer from a convenience store. The clerk chased him out of the store and shot him to death. The thief we unarmed. The clerk was charged by the DA (because the thief was committing a misdemeanor, not a felony) but acquitted by a jury.

To liberals and conservatives, cases like these are unambiguous.

Liberals would say life is worth more than property, therefore you should only be allowed to use deadly force to defend yourself against certain deadly attack.

Conservatives would say a thief doesn't steal only from his victim--he steals from us all. There is a sociological basis for this thinking, embodied in big cities' "broken windows" policies. That is, the appearance of a breakdown of law and order propagates such a breakdown.

The 6-pack stealing thief was a habitual thief, as even his family admitted. Last July 4 at Lake Tahoe, I was waiting in a long line to use the Port-A-Potties when a couple of young men walked up, used the potties, and strode away, showing their contempt for the rest of us. No cops were there to stop them.

Bus services talk about large numbers of young men who habitually use the buses without paying, daring anyone to object.

Such infractions are even more minor than stealing a 6-pack from a convenience store.

But they engender helpless fury in everyone present who's obeying the rules. And our society isn't about to pay for a cop on every corner.

Most people strongly desire to live in a society where nobody cuts in lines, gets gas then speeds off without paying, and generally treat the rest of us as if the rules we live by don't apply to them.

I'm inclined to agree with the conservatives on this issue. I think minor theft of property and services, like broken windows in big cities, has a disproportionate effect on society.

And to be honest, I don't believe that every single person's life is worth more than someone's property. Every thing people own is generally something they worked for and which has meaning for them beyond its fungible worth. Suppose you had a scrapbook of pictures of your dead parents and no copies (yes, you should have made copies, but you didn't), and someone stole the bag it was in and you never saw it again.

Was that a felony? Nope. But if you cared about your parents, it would have felt like it, and the loss would have echoed around in your head for the rest of your life.

The six pack the clerk shot the guy for stealing was the third such theft in the space of a few weeks. You can't even get cops to come to your store and get a report, or, say, check for fingerprints.

So society as a whole faces the choices of (1) taxing people much more heavily and providing for that policeman on every corner; (2) telling people to suck it up and just endure the decay of our society; (3) enact Castle Laws and thus support vigilantism in the absence of comprehensive policing--also meaning that innocent people will get killed now and then.

For example, a few years ago an old coot shot off his shotgun through his front door because he feared the hooligans outside trying to break in. Turns out it was October 31--Halloween--and they were just trick or treaters that he killed. Not to mention the various times people (mostly old men) have shot their spouses  in the middle of the night when the spouse got up to go to the bathroom and the one in bed mistook the returning mate for a burglar.

So if you support Castle Laws--and I do--you also must accept the fact that there will be tragic incidents like these. And that such laws must be written--and explained to citizens--very clearly, so people don't think the legislator declared open season on anyone passing by that you don't take a shine to.

Note that the first Castle law was in part a response to a previous law in some state that criminalized defending yourself with lethal force unless you could prove that it was as a last resort against a definitive existential threat to your existence.

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