Spero Lappas, a criminal defense attorney from Harrisburg, recently wrote an interesting Op-Ed on the Castle Doctrine for the Harrisburg Patriot-News. The column is worth reading and can be found in its entirety below:
Two bills pending before the state’s General Assembly are designed to increase the legal opportunity of Pennsylvanians to kill one another. HB 40 and SB 273 would broaden the poorly named “Castle Doctrine” by legitimizing the use of deadly violence in self-defense, even when the person threatened can avoid all personal risk by simply going someplace else.
These bills celebrate our right to “stand our ground” when faced with danger, and they resonate with the macho imperative that we should not have to run away from bad guys.
They will almost certainly become law; similar bills sailed through the Legislature last year before being vetoed by Gov. Ed Rendell, and Gov. Tom Corbett has reportedly said that he will sign them if they are passed this time. When that happens, it will be an awful day for law enforcement and a perilous time for public safety.
Technically, the bills would change an important part of the law of self-defense — the duty to retreat. Currently, when a person is attacked or threatened with attack he can fight back to protect himself or others: up to the point of killing the attacker. Before meeting deadly force with deadly force, he must try to escape the dangerous situation if he safely can do so.
The law makes a reasonable decision that if one person must flee or another will die, then running away is best. There are exceptions to protect a person who is threatened at home or at work, but aside from that safe retreat is preferred to homicide.
The key word here, of course, is “safe.” If you place yourself at risk by retreating you can stand and fight. There is generally no duty to turn your back on a shooter or to try to outrun gunfire. Superman might be faster than a speeding bullet, but the law recognizes that he is the only one. In the rare and true case of kill or be killed, self-preservation trumps nonviolence. The law of self-defense does not intend to promote suicide.
HB 40 and SB 273 would change these rules by allowing people to oppose deadly force with deadly force whenever they are in any place they have the legal right to be. Streets, stores, shopping malls, houses of worship, hospitals and playgrounds would all become lawful shooting ranges: dueling grounds where mortal combat is favored over the embarrassment of turning tail.
When Gov. Rendell vetoed this legislation last November he said, “I do not believe that in a civilized society we should encourage violent and deadly confrontation when the victim can safely protect themselves.” That seems self-evidently true. Rendell and others, including prominent police and law enforcement interests, oppose the “shoot first mentality” that this law would foster. Dauphin County District Attorney Ed Marsico has been quoted as saying that “someone can claim self-defense if they shoot someone who looks at them the wrong way.”
These bills and their authors seem little troubled by these public safety concerns. Instead, the language of the bills blithely proclaims that “it is proper for law-abiding people to protect themselves” and that no person “should be required to needlessly retreat in the face of intrusion or attack” outside their home or vehicle.
The battle lines for this debate are drawn close to pro-gun, anti-gun divisions with one sponsor of the Senate Bill quoted as saying “I bust my butt for” the NRA. But this is really not just a gun rights issue, it is an issue complicated by pride and vanity and a misguided notion of what it means to be brave. Running away is weak, and standing your ground is manly. This is a law that would exalt saving face over saving lives.
Pennsylvania and its legislators should be looking for tools to reduce lethal violence rather than finding new ways to glorify its increase. The criminal courts already overflow with the consequence of senseless mayhem, and those of us who work there would prefer not to see it get any worse.
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