My Brother’s Keeper: Good Neighbor or Criminal?

Some might call him a heroic brother’s keeper, others a wild vigilante. Whatever the case may be, this neighbor in Houston, Texas may be charged with a crime for blasting away two intruders of his neighbor’s home a few weeks ago, testing the limits of a new Texas law likely to be one of the most tolerant state allowances of deadly force in protection of oneself, one’s property, and arguably the property of one’s neighbor. The new law, effective as of Sept. 1, 2007, “extends a person’s right to stand their ground beyond the home to vehicles and workplaces, allowing the reasonable use of deadly force when an intruder is:

  1. Committing certain violent crimes, such as murder or sexual assault, or is attempting to commit such crimes;
  2. Unlawfully trying to enter a protected place; or
  3. Unlawfully trying to remove a person from a protected place.

The law also provides civil immunity for a person who lawfully uses deadly force in the above circumstances. Note that Texas also abandoned the “duty to retreat” (observed in some jurisdictions) in 1995, carving out an exception that allowed use of deadly force without retreat when an intruder unlawfully entered someone’s home.

So, was what viligante neighbor did justified under the new law? To me, “unlawfully trying to enter a protected place” seems very vague, and may or may not cover what vigilante neighbor did. It also seems unfair to me that a person’s life could be required as the penalty for simple burglary of someone else’s house- that seems like a pretty harsh penalty for a petty criminal.

But you decide for yourself- here is a portion of the transcript of the 911 call, which you can also listen to by watching the video embedded here, all the way up to where the man cocks his gun and blows his neighbor’s intruders away, killing both:

Operator: “I’ve got officers coming out there. I don’t want you to go outside that house and I don’t want you to have that gun in your hand when those officers are poking around out there.”

Caller: “I understand that, but I have a right to protect myself too, sir.”

Caller: “Here it goes, buddy.” (sound of shotgun pumping) “You hear the shotgun clicking and I’m going.”

Operator: “Don’t go outside.” (sound of shotgun pumping)

The man became upset as he described seeing two men leaving his neighbor’s home.

Caller: “They got a bag of something.”

Operator: “Don’t go outside the house.”

Caller: “I’m doing it.”

Operator: “Do not go outside the house.”

Caller: “I’m sorry. This ain’t right, buddy.”

Operator: You’re going to get yourself shot if you go outside that house with the gun.”

Caller: “You wanna make a bet? I’m going to kill them.”

Moments later a shotgun was heard firing at least twice.

Both suspects died at the scene.

My opinion? I think this neighbor went too far, and that he probably ought to be charged with a crime for his conduct. We can’t just have people shooting anyone who looks like they are intruding on property that is not even the shooters. I don’t think the “castle doctrine” should extend to allowing people to become the neighborhood vigilante. Apparently, neither did the state senator who sponsored the new Texas law, who says the law was never intended to apply to a neighbor’s property: “[It] is not designed to have kind of a ‘Law West of the Pecos’ mentality or action,’ . . . You’re supposed to be able to defend your own home, your own family, in your house, your place of business or your motor vehicle.” I can agree with that. But I still think death is a harsh penalty for burglary. What do you think?

16 Responses to My Brother’s Keeper: Good Neighbor or Criminal?

  1. ed42 says:

    If we can’t defend our neighbors (or their property), then why do we exist? The purpose of government is to come together and PROTECT each other’s right to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness (property). I’ll error on the side of the defender, not the offender, thank you very much.

  2. Jordan F. says:

    So, Ed, would you be willing to kill a petty thief if your or your neighbors actual life was not in imminent danger? I agree that we should be able to defend our rights and protect them by force if necessary, but step back for a moment. Doesn’t killing a petty thief seem kind of extreme when nobody’s life is at stake?

    I am not against the idea, per se, but I am trying to weigh it out in my mind.

  3. Jordan F. says:

    By the way, I highly recommend listening to the 911 call on the video from the news website. It is quite entertaining macabre.

  4. Horebite says:

    If the law gives us the right to defend our neighbor’s property, I can see the headline now:

    “Man climbing through window after getting locked out gets shot by neighbor.”

    I think he should be charged. In fairness though, he claims that the men were coming onto his property when he shot them. I don’t buy it though, since he apparently told the 911 operator he was going to shoot them. But that’s his only chance at a defense. The imaginary right to defend your neighbors property with deadly force is not really an issue.

    By the way, I don’t really see what’s funny about the 911 call. It seems tragic to me for everyone involved (the shooter is apparently distraught now). I can’t imagine how the 911 operator must have felt knowing that something very bad was about to happen and there was nothing he or she could do about it.

  5. mondo cool says:

    Life, liberty, and property…

    This kind of situation raises a couple of important questions for me:
    1) Did the two gentlmen who lost their lives deserve to die for their actions?
    The two were definitely violating the principle of property and by doing so were violating the principle of liberty in that they were threatening the right of the home owner and the neighbors to live peaceably. Even though it is not in vogue under the law to consider the past behavior in this particular incident, I think it germane to know whether these two gentlemen had priors for this or other criminal acts, or, for this instance, were they committing a petty theft and therefore are petty thieves, or were they “career” criminals?

    2) Did the neighbor have the right to take their lives?
    The Texas Legislature passed the law. The meaning of the law is not settled. This is why lawyers exist.

  6. mondo cool says:

    Sorry, forgot to add:

    Breaking & entering is not petty theft … it is burglary.

  7. mondo cool says:

    Sorry, one more time:

    B&E does not make it petty theft… it is burglary.

  8. mondo cool says:

    Sorry, yet again. I don’t know why……. Actually, I do. The next door neighbor of my daughter, her husband, and her two precious daughters was burgled recently. They can no longer live life the same.

    Jordan F.: Why did you initially use the term “a petty theif” in your questioning? Why the downplaying, even and most likely if unintentional? Why this tendency among so many?

    Why is respect for property diminished so much? Yes, I know that property can be restored, whereas life cannot. But, I feel that the safeguarding of property has been, and is being, marginalized by too many in society today. I see it in things from movies and cartoons (think explosions… even though I do enjoy the entertainment) to criminal, civil and tax law. Where my wife works there is a thief. Where I work there is a thief. Things go missing.

    For me, property is a tangible representation and realization of both life and liberty. So, when one violates property, one also violates life and liberty. If I make $10 an hour and buy a $300 Mont Blanc Fountain then I have used my liberty to expend 30 hours of my life working to make a foolish purchase. But, it was my choice. If someone jacks my MB, then they have stolen 30 hours of my life and liberty. What kind of penalty would you impose upon someone who took you, your spouse, or 4-y-o daughter and just put ‘em in a box for 30 hours? Or, your neighbor’s? What would you do to stop them?

    I guess I won’t be on the jury of this case.

  9. john f. says:

    Come on people. This about blowing someone away who is running away from robbing your neighbor’s house. Self-defense laws in this country, and particularly regarding the use of deadly force, have historically never allowed the use of deadly force to defend just property. Hence you have the famous spring-loaded shotgun case where the burglar got pumped full of lead by a booby trap left on unoccupied property by the pissed-off (absentee) owner.

    If someone is burglarizing your house, you have a right to defend yourself and your family (not your house) but that’s the catch — when you are in there you cannot be presumed to know whether the burglar intends to harm you or not so you can blow him or her away. Seeing someone running away from burglarizing your neighbor’s house is a far cry from this historical understanding of the principle of using deadly force in self-defense.

    In a society that has legitimate debate about the application of the death penalty when applied to those who have committed heinous crimes, it is difficult to imagine that you can just blow someone away who is not threatening your life in any way but rather running away from someone else’s house in an apparent burglary. No judge, no jury, just a suspicion, a gun, and a window facing your neighbor’s house. I have a feeling that this isn’t going to come under the purview of the statute.

  10. Jordan F. says:

    Sorry- “entertaining” was the wrong word to use. I meant macabre.

    Someone else forcibly putting my person, my spouses person, or my son’s person in a box for 30 hours is completely different than robbing someone of something that cost 30 hours of work. For one thing, if someone were forcibly kidnapping a human being, almost every common law jurisdiction makes deadly force a justification to avoid imminent death or serious bodily harm, which could well be the situation if a kidnapping (forcibly taking someone and putting them into a box) were afoot.

    I do view taking of my personal property as a serious infringment of my right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, but I do not think death is a suitable consequence.

    And if someone were trying to forcibly take the person of me or anyone else, I would use whatever force was necessary to stop it, assuming I was able to do so.

  11. Mark D. says:

    I do not believe deadly force should be allowed in defense of property.

    Texas SB 378 doesn’t appear to be applicable to this situation – it amended the Texas Penal Code sec. 9.32 which is about deadly force in defense of person. The relevant statute appears to be Texas Penal Code sec. 9.43, which allows deadly force in defense of a third person’s property under broad conditions.

    I think that section is extreme, but it certainly appears to provide a sufficient legal justification for the shooter’s actions in this case. By comparision, Utah does not allow deadly force to be used in defense of property (cf. Utah Code 76-2-406). I don’t know about other states.

  12. mondo cool says:

    Looking at grand theft with B&E and minimizing and characterizing it as “petty theft” may be as irksome to some as seeing it with the same moral equivalency as kidnapping is to others.

    Grand theft is different than petty theft.

    And, kidnapping is different than grand theft.

    Grand theft is grand theft. Grand theft with breaking & entering is more serious than grand theft alone.

    For the record, I do not think that death is a suitable consequence to be imposed by the State for grand theft w/ B&E. But, I’m still not sure, especially the way the law is written in the State of Texas, that the 61 y-o neighbor has violated Texas law.

    My vote: Brother’s keeper – not criminal.

  13. Bret B. says:

    He should have never left the house. Very few of us, anymore, understand the consequences of violence. If you are a normal human being then using violence, let alone killing another human being will have serious emotional consequences. I worked with a man who had to shoot a man who broke into his house, the man had a gun, he had no choice. But to this day he sees that man’s face in his nightmares, watching another human being die is a terrible thing.
    For most of us the only exposure we have to real violence is the movies. Not only that but how many of us have every really killed another living thing? I feel bad if I have to kill a mouse. We simple do not appreciate the psychological consequences violence will have on us.
    Real self defense is learning how to stay out of trouble, force should be a last resort. If he absolutely felt it necessary to go after them then he did it the wrong way. He should have ordered them to stop, and let them know that any quick action would be considered a threat and that he would shoot if that happened. Then held them there till the police came. Then if something happend at least he would have some semblance of an argument for self-defense. But the smart move would have been to never leave the house, now he has a life-time of grief to deal with, not to mention the very serious possibiltiy he will go to jail.

  14. john f. says:

    MC, my vote: “brother’s keeper” does not equal witnessing burglars running away from your neighbors house, announcing to the 911 operator that you are going to go kill them (i.e. the man is entirely at his leisure and can decide, should I go blow them away or not, decides to do so, and then does), and then killing two people you suspect of burglarizing your neighbor’s house.

  15. dpc says:

    I suspect that most people will see the neighbor’s actions positively because it works as a deterrent against burglaries (as dubious as that theory is). I believe, however, that if the purpose of the criminal justice system is to dispense retributive justice, the punishment must fit the crime. And I don’t think that death is the appropriate punishment for burglary, regardless of the violation of other’s property rights. Life is always more valuable than property.

    I think that it might be better to describe the two deceased burglars as ‘petty thieves’ rather than say that their crime is ‘petty theft’. I don’t know what was in the bag they were carrying, but I doubt that they made off with more than a few thousand dollars in property. I also think that the property was probably insured under the home owner’s insurance policy, so I don’t think the owner would have lost out on much regardless of what they took. The victims of the burglar would feel violated, as all victims of crime feel, but I don’t think that death of the burglars is going to make them feel better.

  16. djinn says:

    You guys are crazy. Do you really want your children shot if they’re caught by the next-door neighbor sneaking out of their friend’s house in the middle of the night? Do you know why Utah law doesn’t allow shooting someone for defense of property? Because someone shot a 10 year old boy who was coming over at night to play with his rabbits.

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