A news story crossed my Twitter feed the other day about a homeowner confronting a “mail thief”. The whole encounter as well as what lead up to it is caught on a security camera the homeowner had installed at her front door (it looks to be a Ring brand of “doorbell camera”).
You can watch the video here. But briefly, the mail thief approaches the house, pauses to determine if anybody is home, then opens the mailbox (which is right at the front door). She then removes mail and begins to open it. Ceratinly unusual behavior! At that point, the homeowner opens the door and confronts the thief. Surprised and caught in the act, the thief doesn’t put up much resistance and the homeowner “escorts” (as in, forcefully persuades) the thief off of her property.
The homeowner looks to have used an appropriate level of non-lethal force, as generally required to protect property, and the thief fortunately doesn’t put up much resistance to being escorted off the property. In the end, the public gets a good laugh at the viral video as we watch the thief get her just desserts for violating the sanctity of this woman’s mail. All’s well that ends well, right?
The question is: why? Why confront this thief when you have a doorbell camera recording everything? Staying where you are already safe is one of the cardinal rules of self-defense, especially if you are in the safety of your home already, behind locked doors. Do the benefits of embarassing this “mail thief” outweigh the unknown risks of the confrontation. We can already reasonably infer that the thief has little respect for personal space, property rights, and the law in general. But think of all the unknowns which this homeowner opens her door to?
- Does the homeowner know if the thief is mentally unstable and will escalate to violence?
- Does she know if the thief is armed?
- Does she know if the thief’s reaction will be to simply retreat or instead try to gain entry?
- Does she know if the thief is really intent on a home invasion?
- Is the thief some form of decoy? Does the thief have accomplices waiting outside of camera view for the homeowner to open the door to confront the diminutive woman stealing her mail? Innocent, harmless looking decoys are a typical tactic in home invasions.
The homeowner (and you watching your security camera in a similar situation) don’t know any of this. So why risk it over mail (or your kid’s bike you told them 10 times not to leave on front lawn, or even your very expensive car)?
The law generally, and with good reasons, discourages “self-help.” While self-defense is one form of self-help the law permits, it is only within very confined circumstances. Even if justified, even if this situation escalated to justified deadly force, what is the easiest way to avoid all of the legal, emotional, psychological, and financial problems? Stay where you are safe. Use your passive security (the video) as evidence to identify the thief. Call the cops and let them handle the rest.
I’ve been following this case out of Bucks County, PA, and it appears the defendant (I suppose I find it hard to believe an attorney would actually make this claim) wanted the jury to believe that shooting her estranged lover in the face was done “unintentionally and as an act of self defense.” If you are going down the road of self-defense, you want to avoid statements that you acted unintentionally or your acts were an accident. Now, frankly, from what I’ve seen reported on this case, there were plenty of other issues for this young woman to negate a claim of self-defense, but trying to spin a tale involving two mutually exclusive legal defenses doesn’t help. (The fact that several other “residents” of Bucks County prison testified that she bragged about killing her “sugar daddy” probably didn’t help. Additional note: if you want to claim self-defense, try to avoid creating a nick name for yourself in prison such as “sugaslayer.”)
Back on topic: self-defense is an affirmative defense. It is, therefore, legally an intentional act. One you claim you did, and in fact, you would do again if put in the same situation. An accident is the exact opposite. It is unintentional. If you find yourself saying “I didn’t mean for that to happen” then you are saying it was an accident. There are not a lot of people acquitted by claiming their criminal conduct was an accident. If a jury believes it was an accident, especially in the context of armed self-defense, you may reduce, but not eliminating your culpability. Think, going from Murder to Manslaughter. Life as you know it is still over. It is hard for juries, with good reason, to buy that when you point a gun at someone and pull the trigger, you did not intend for the end result to happen.
In Commonwealth v. Harris, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court rejected a self-defense claim because Harris “denied that the shooting was intentional and, instead, said it was caused by mistake or accident as he backed up the stairs.” By doing so, Harris “denied that the act was done intentionally in defense of self. Under such circumstances, therefore, a defense of self-defense is not available to such a person because it is mutually exclusive of the defense of accident or mistake.” See Commonwealth v. Harris, 665 A.2d 1172, 1175 (Pa. 1995).
The following transcript excerpt of the prosecutor cross-examining Harris during trial is cringe-worthy and demonstrates just how badly you can shoot yourself in the foot with a mixed message:
Q: How did you know you were going to the district?
A: Because of the way the situation looks, because I know they had to get a report.
Q: Because you knew you did something wrong; didn’t you, sir?
A: No. It was self-defense, but it was an accident of me backing up the steps.
Q: Was it an accident, sir, or was it self-defense, because they are not the same thing.
A: Well, accident; excuse me on that.
Q: So, if it was an accident you were not fearful for your life; is that right?
A: That is right.
Q: Your life was not in jeopardy if it was an accident.
Commonwealth v. Harris, 665 A.2d 1172, 1174 (Pa. 1995).
The lesson here is if you carry a gun for self-protection, any claim of self-protection is an intentional act, not an accident. You don’t get to present both and let the jury pick which one.* Frankly, if your only claim is it was an accident, a trial judge is unlikely to give the jury a self-defense instruction at all.
* Always an oddball state when it comes to the law, Pennsylvania appears to permit in a very limited circumstance to allow both a self-defense and a “mistake of fact” instruction. See Commonwealth v. Scott. I happen to think the dissenting opinion in Scott is correct and the majority conflates one aspect of a self-defense instruction (the “reasonable, but mistaken belief” language) with a separate “mistake of fact” instruction. Perhaps I’ll discuss Scott more fully in another post.