Home is your castle
“I just shot through my door with a gun,” a Niles man told a police dispatcher last month.
Based on a 911 recording of the conversation between Roy Hahn and that dispatcher, the 40-year-old man didn’t seem to realize at the time that the shotgun blast he fired through his front door had killed one of the people trying to break in and wounded another.
The shooting is among several examples of deadly force, locally and nationally, that have made headlines as prosecutors confront self-defense cases in the form of Ohio Castle Doctrine, stand-your-ground or “no duty to retreat” laws.
Last week, Hahn was cleared of any wrongdoing by Trumbull County prosecutors who, citing Ohio Castle Doctrine, said it was a clear case of self-defense.
In a twist, the surviving burglary suspects were charged with murder on the claims that their commission of a felony caused a life to be taken.
Chris Becker said he has not personally seen this type of charge in his 13 years as an assistant Trumbull County prosecutor. It’s not common, but it’s also not unprecedented, he said.
As for the shooting, “this is a clear example of someone who felt his life was in danger,” Becker said.
County prosecutors saw differently in 2010 when Karen Adams of Hubbard Township was charged in the fatal shooting of a teenage boy at her home.
According to reports, the 15-year-old boy came in or near her driveway with a carload of teens armed with baseball bats and tire irons. The boy ended up dead of a gunshot wound to the head.
Adams was sentenced the next year to six years in prison. Where prosecutors agreed the Hahn case fell under Ohio Castle Doctrine, they argued the Adams case did not.
Essentially, Ohio’s Castle Doctrine, which went into effect in 2008, is a self-defense law based on the premise that your home is your castle. It allows for individuals to use deadly force to defend themselves inside their homes or vehicles when they fear for their lives at the hands of an intruder.
At least 48 states, including Ohio, have Castle Laws. More than 20 states have gone a step further by adopting Stand-Your-Ground laws. Stand-Your-Ground, now under consideration in Ohio, expands the areas where deadly force may be used to include yards or other places where a person has a right to be.
Local prosecutors said using self-defense to keep someone from violently entering one’s home has been a legal defense dating back to the 1800s. Ohio law previously required the victim of a home invasion to retreat before using deadly force, and to prove acting out of fear of serious physical injury or potential death. Castle Doctrine changed that.
“What it does is remove the burden of proof from the homeowner,” said Jim Irvine, chairman of the Buckeye Firearms Association, a gun-rights advocacy group. Castle laws give homeowners the presumption of innocence, he said.
“The idea that your home is your castle is centuries old,” he said. “No one ever passed a law and said your home is not your castle. But we had case law in which judges – not in one big case but in a series of cases – started whittling down rights of homeowners. Caste Doctrine restores some of those rights.”
Officials are quick to point out that it does not give a person carte blanche to use deadly force, become a vigilante or take the law into one’s own hands.
“I think there’s some confusion about what people can or can do, should or shouldn’t do,” Warren police Sgt. Geoff Fusco said.
Fusco helps oversee Warren Weed and Seed’s Citizen Police Awareness Academy, which addresses what civilians can do when helping police fight crime.
“Being involved in a neighborhood watch is a good thing, and we encourage that. But there are still rules, laws and regulations people have to follow. People need to be clear and have an understanding on what the law says,” he said.
In Ashtabula County last month, a father and son, Kenneth C. Jameson, 61, and Michael. C. Jameson, 30, were charged in the shooting of two Amish teenagers. According to reports, the two men opened fire, striking a van parked at their barn, wounding the two teens who were among a group inside the van.
The teens had gone to the residence to retrieve a radio that they were storing in the barn with the Jamesons’ permission. The Jamesons thought they were trespassers, investigators said.
Ashtabula County Sheriff William R. Johnson cautioned homeowners that Ohio laws say deadly force can be used only to prevent serious bodily harm or death.
“Deadly force can never be used to protect property only. If law enforcement and prosecutors determine that a person’s use of deadly force is not justified, criminal charges may be pursued and the outcome could be life-altering,” he stated.
Assistant Astabula County Prosecutor Harold Specht said that as a prosecutor, he looks at whether an intruder posed any threat of serious harm or death to the homeowner, his family or any occupants in the house.
He acknowledged self-defense cases have been rare in Ashtabula County and there haven’t been any cases that fall under Castle Doctrine cases there in recent years.
Nationally, self-defense as a legal defense came into play this year when a Florida jury acquitted George Zimmerman in the shooting death of teenager Trayvon Martin. Defense attorney’s argued Zimmerman was acting in self-defense. Prosecutors argued otherwise.
Earlier this year, Toledo officials opted not to charge a homeowner who fatally shot an intruder in what they said likely was a case of self-defense protected by the state’s Castle Doctrine.
According to information released by the Trumbull County Prosecutor’s Office, in an interview with officials after the shooting at his home, Hahn stated, “I was scared that if they had gotten in the house … that they’d kill me.”
Irvine said, “Before we had an insane situation where the burden of proof was on the crime victim. That doesn’t happen in other cases.
”But now there’s strong consideration into the fact that somebody broke into your house and therefore has already committed a crime.
”If the prosecution can show some reason why someone should be prosecuted, maybe there are extenuating circumstances, that’s a different story. But for the most part, what Castle Doctrine does is restore the right of the homeowner to protect themselves in their home owns, even if it means they have to use deadly force and the result is the death of the intruder, the person who actually came there to commit a crime in the first place,” Irvine said. ”This resets the balance on things.”