Buckeye, AZ Homeowner Shoots Backyard Prowler; Risks a Lot For His Lawnmower

by Tommy Grant

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Yes, there is an old expression that a man’s home is his castle. Then there’s the “Castle Doctrine” that allows homeowners wide latitude to use force to defend themselves and their homes against intruders. Some who don’t know better think they also have a blank check to use force, up to and including deadly force, against trespassers on the property outside their homes.

That’s not usually the case. And even in a tiny handful of jurisdictions that allow the use of force against trespassers, especially after dark, it’s seldom a wise or prudent thing to do.

A few days ago, police in Buckeye, Arizona, investigated a shooting. A homeowner called police after shooting a trespasser in his back yard.  The Buckeye PD posted this on their Book of Face:

Just before 2:30 this morning, Buckeye police received a call of shots fired at a home near 237th Ave and Mohave St. When officers arrived, a man was seen walking out of the home with his hands up. Officers detained him. They searched the home where they found a man in the back yard bleeding from a gunshot wound to the chest. He was transported to the hospital.

Investigators gathered statements from those on scene. The homeowner told investigators he and his family were asleep when they heard the doorbell. He says he grabbed a handgun and looked out the front window but didn’t see anyone there. Then, the homeowner says, he heard noise coming from the back of the house so he went to the back door, opened it and confronted an unknown man. The homeowner says the man ignored commands to leave and walked towards the homeowner. The homeowner fired a single shot, hitting the man in the chest.

The gunshot victim is a man in his early 20s. At last check, he was in critical condition. The homeowner is a man in his 30s. The investigation is ongoing.

Let’s break this down.  Mr. Homeowner sees a guy in his early 20s in his back yard.  Instead of calling the police to report a prowler and patiently watching the trespasser, the homeowner opens the back door, gun in hand, and confronts the unwelcome visitor.

After ignoring commands to leave, the bad guy walks towards the homeowner. The story leaves out anything else that might have caused the homeowner alarm.  Was the prowler meek and mild, or was he shouting threats and harsh words at the homeowner?  Did he have any weapons?

If mitigating circumstances like threatening behavior from the backyard trespasser existed, one would expect those would merit a mention in the news release.

How could the average person better handle this situation?

A wise and prudent man would call 911 and report a prowler.

Admittedly, most of us among the sheepdog clan have a little bit of terrier in them. We don’t want the bad guy to get away. We don’t want the bad guy to take our stuff.  But instead of engaging in a confrontation, why not just wait discretely for the police?  How about possibly recording the prowler’s actions for prosecutors to later use against him or her if police make an arrest?

Opening the back door creates an opportunity for things to go poorly by exposing the homeowner to danger, up to and including getting shot and killed. After all, what if the prowler pulls a gun? Suddenly you’ve found yourself in a gun battle which you might not win.  Is it worth risking a colostomy bag or other debilitating injury from a gunshot wound to confront a criminal in your back yard?  The wise and prudent man says that’s a hard no. Let the cops do that. They get paid the big bucks to do that and have training, tactics and body armor to protect them.

Or, such as this case, the homeowner fires at an apparently otherwise unarmed backyard prowler.  The Supreme Court has weighed in that you shouldn’t use deadly force over property crimes.

From noted legal expert Eugene Volokh:

[1.] In all states, you can use deadly force to defend yourself against death, serious bodily injury (which can include broken bones and perhaps even lost teeth), rape, or kidnapping, so long as (a) your fear is reasonable and (b) the danger is imminent (requirements that also apply to the doctrines I discuss below). For instance, you should be able to use deadly force against someone who is trying to burn down your home, since that threatens you with death or serious bodily harm. You should be able to do the same against someone who is trying to burn down your business, though with possible limitations involving the duty to retreat in the minority of states that recognize such a duty.

But in nearly all states, you can’t generally use deadly force merely to defend your property. (Texas appears to be an exception, allowing use of deadly force when there’s no other way to protect or recapture property even in situations involving simple theft or criminal mischief, though only at night,  Tex. Penal Code § 9.42; see, e.g., McFadden v. State (Tex. Ct. App. 2018).) That’s where we get the conventional formulation that you can’t use deadly force just to defend property.

[2.] This conventional formulation, though, omits an important limitation: In basically all states, you can use nondeadly force to defend your property—and if the thief or vandal responds by threatening you with death or great bodily harm, you can then protect yourself with deadly force. So in practice, you can use deadly force to protect property after all, if you’re willing to use nondeadly force first and expose yourself to increased risk.

Even if it was merely a property crime that escalated into a self-defense claim after a trespasser produces a weapon, the fact remains that the homeowner escalated it into a deadly force encounter.

Meanwhile, some states like Illinois have old law on the books that allows good citizens to use deadly force to prevent forcible felonies.  Forcible felonies in the Land of Lincoln include burglaries.  Even if that’s on the books, how will it look to a jury panel composed of a cross-section of the community (including those who don’t like guns or the idea of self-defense) that you shot young Mongo over stealing your Craftsman lawnmower from the backyard shed or your Bose sound system from your car?

The moral of the Buckeye, Arizona, case: Call the cops and let them sort out the prowler call.  Don’t risk your own health and safety, and that of your family to confront an a-hole in your back yard. Don’t risk all of the bad things that follow the use of deadly force over things in your backyard shed.  It’s just not worth it.

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