Thursday, June 14, 2012

Balko debunks hysterical myths about Indiana self-defense law

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There was quite a bit of hubbub last May when the Indiana Supreme Court declared that Hoosiers had no right to defend themselves or their homes if law enforcement officers chose to barge in unlawfully, effectively undercutting the state’s “Castle Doctrine” as well as hundreds of years of common law precedent dating back to the Magna Carta.

In response, state legislators presented a bill to reverse this ineffably absurd (and dangerous) decision, and the issue remained dormant until last week, when the legislature widely approved the amendment and Gov. Mitch Daniels (R) signed it into law.

At once, a fresh outcry erupted, this time over concerns that (as headlines variously, and totally responsibly, phrased it) “Indiana legalize[d] shooting cops”, conjuring imagery of troopers being blasted away with shotguns if they so much as knocked at a citizen’s door at night, presumably frightening any meth-hammered inhabitants into thinking they were suddenly in mortal peril.

Naturally, the ever-vigilant Radley Balko has a detailed write-up at The Huffington Post explaining everything that the newly revised law does – and most certainly does not – allow:

Jeffersonville, Ind., police Sgt. Joseph Hubbard told Bloomberg News, "If I pull over a car and I walk up to it and the guy shoots me, he's going to say, 'Well, he was trying to illegally enter my property. Somebody is going get away with killing a cop because of this law."

Added Tim Downs, head of the state's largest police union: "It just puts a bounty on our heads."

Fortunately, the law does nothing of the kind.


The Castle Doctrine law says that if someone has entered or is attempting to enter your home without your consent, you're legally permitted to use a reasonable amount of force to expel the intruder from your residence. If you reasonably believe your life or members of your family are in danger, you can use lethal force. The revision to Indiana's law simply states that public servants aren't exempt from such treatment.

Rutherford pointed out that the word "reasonable" appears throughout the revision to the Indiana law. "That's important. The amount of force you use must be reasonable," he said. "So if a police officer pokes his head inside your screen door because he heard something suspicious, no, you don't now have free rein to shoot him."

Indiana residents must (a) reasonably believe the public servant is attempting to enter their home illegally and (b) use no more force than is reasonably necessary to dispel the threat to their lives or property.

So Hoosiers can't use any force if the public servant isn't a threat and can't use lethal force unless there's good reason to believe the intruding police officer presents an immediate and significant threat to the safety of those inside.

Moreover, an Indiana resident's mere assertion that he shot a police officer because he thought the cop had entered his home illegally and presented a threat doesn't necessarily get him off the hook. If a prosecutor thinks the homeowner acted unreasonably, he or she can still press charges. And if members of a jury then determine that that the homeowner's assessment of the threat wasn't reasonable, they can still convict him.

Additionally, the new amendment still bars a Castle Doctrine defense if the homeowner is in the act of committing or escaping from a crime, provoked a police officer into using force or should have known the police officer was acting legally.

You mean that a self-defense law only applies to those who can actually prove that they acted in self-defense? Color me bewildered.

Unsurprisingly, much of the opposition to the new law is being driven by police unions, which are always happy to demonize any legislation that might give victims of police misconduct a chance to argue for their rights in court. Nonetheless, it’s dryly amusing to see all this fuss and protest about a move that simply allows law-abiding civilians to have the same legal standing in court that officers (particularly the incompetent and abusive) have long profited from. Because there’s apparently nothing like leveling the playing field to spur cries of injustice from the brotherhood of the badge.