A recent incident in which a man was fatally shot after he apparently broke into a home in Gig Harbor by mistake has led some to ask when a homeowner is justified in using deadly force.
The answers depend on a number of things.
Washington law states that force can be used against someone if a person believes themselves “about to be injured” and is attempting to prevent an offense or a malicious trespass against them, as long as the “force that is not more than is necessary” (RCW 9A.16.020).
Washington law also makes homicide justifiable when there is “reasonable ground” that the person slain was “to commit a felony or to do some great personal injury” to a such person, and that person believes there is imminent danger of that happening, including “in a dwelling or other place of abode” (RCW 9A.16.050).
Where things get complicated is the meaning of “reasonable” and “necessary” force, according to local defense attorney Amity Bjork.
“A person has to think they or someone else is in danger — that’s what makes it reasonable,” Bjork said. “... They have to reasonably believe a person is committing a felony against themselves, against another person, and the statute does say upon or in a dwelling — so the language suggests that a home invasion could be a situation where it could be used as long as there’s imminent danger.”
In the Gig Harbor incident that occurred July 4, the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department determined a 48-year-old man likely thought he was in his father’s house down the road when he broke a window shortly around 10 p.m. and went up the stairs.
Police said the man was “yelling and screaming at the people inside the house” and that he was carrying a liquor bottle.
The 66-year-old homeowner, hearing the commotion, shot the intruder. The man died at the scene from a gunshot wound to the chest.
Deputies did not arrest the homeowner, and prosecutors will decide whether to file criminal charges against him. The case is still under review.
“This is a great example of, ‘It depends,’” Bjork said. “There’s so many different variables, and so many ways that people can land on it.”
Bjork said that in her experience, it’s not uncommon for no arrests immediately after an incident such as the Gig Harbor one, as it takes time to determine what happened leading up to the incident.
“The police and the prosecutors want to take some time to figure out what actually happened — were the homeowner’s actions reasonable? And they want to make that decision before they take the step of arresting a person on such a serious charge,” she said.
Other criminal defense firms, including Seattle-based Will & Will, echo that there can be gray areas surrounding the word “reasonable.”
“That’s because, to avoid criminal charges, your actions have to have been reasonable given the details of the situation,” according to Will & Will’s website. “For example, if you shot and killed someone who pulled into your driveway to turn their car around, this would almost certainly not be considered reasonable ... However, if someone was pointing a gun at you and threatening to shoot, firing your weapon at them would likely be considered reasonable.”
According to washingtongunlaw.com, run by criminal defense attorney William K. Kirk, using deadly force to merely defend property is not permitted under Washington law.
“Remember, deadly force may only be used in self-defense if a person reasonably believes he or she is imminently threatened with death or great personal injury ... Under Washington law, no piece of property is worth another person’s life,” according to a blog post by Kirk.
Bjork said that previous cases are important to look at for understanding state laws, called WPIC, or Washington Pattern Instructions.
“They break it down and show how the courts have applied it in the past,” Bjork said.
In the Gig Harbor case, Bjork said there’s a lot of details to be looked at.
“I think there are some compelling facts that support the fear and the force was reasonable under the law,” she said.
This story was originally published on The News Tribune.
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