Friday, December 4, 2009

Dallas Morning News Editorial misapplies Texas law

Written by Charles L. Cotton

The DMN’s Editorial: Castle law needs fine-tuning, Dec. 1, 2009 purports to disclose what it describes ambiguities in the two year old Texas Castle Doctrine. Unfortunately, in doing so the editorial makes broad and inaccurate assumptions about Texas law and engages in rank speculation about secret grand jury deliberations.

First, here is a summary of the changes made by the Texas Castle Doctrine bill passed in 2007. The Bill addressed three areas of Texas jurisprudence; two in the criminal law arena and one dealing with civil law. It removed a victim’s duty to retreat before justifiably using deadly force when they are attacked, but with specific safeguards to prevent abuse.

Secondly, it created a presumption to protect intended victims who defend themselves when they are attacked in their occupied homes, businesses and cars, again with safeguards to prevent abuse. In short, the attacker must have broken into your home, business or car while you are in it, or must be actively attempting to do so. Contrary to the DMN Editorial’s implication, walking down the street does not constitute attempting to “unlawfully and with force enter an occupied habitation.”

The Dallas incident made the basis of the DMN Editorial involved a shooting between people who had a recent history of violent behavior towards one another. The two men who were killed reportedly fired shots earlier in the day at one of the men [the homeowner] involved in the shooting. At the time of the fatal shooting, the DMN Editorial claims the two men who were killed were not on the homeowner’s property and that they were unarmed. While this conflicts with early news reports, it does not matter in this case. Neither man shot was “attempting to unlawfully and with force [break into] an occupied habitation [home].” Therefore, the Castle Doctrine does not apply to this case, at least based upon the information made public.

The case was presented to a Dallas County grand jury that determined an indictment should not be handed down. The DMN Editorial claims, “A grand jury’s unwillingness to indict the shooters points up potential weaknesses in the castle law, which presumes that a person is acting reasonable if he shoots someone entering or attempting to enter the person’s home, business or car.” Again, this is pure speculation since grand jury deliberations are secret. What the prosecutors told the grand jury is not known, nor do we know what facts the grand jury decided were controlling. If the grand jury felt the shooters “reasonably believed that deadly force was immediately necessary,” under the facts presented to it, then it was required to “no bill” the defendants. But this has nothing to do with the Castle Doctrine; this has been the law in Texas for over a hundred years! One thing is absolutely clear however, the Castle Doctrine’s presumption did not apply to the facts of this case, as they have been reported to the public.

So why would the DMN Editorial falsely claim the Castle Doctrine impacted this case? Only the Dallas Morning News Editorial Board knows for sure, but it appears to be an attempt to lay the groundwork to repeal or weaken a very good law designed to protect innocent victims. Even the terms used in the Editorial lend credence to this interpretation. When the Editorial used the phrase “. . . the shotgun- [sic] and assault-rifle-wielding father and son . . .” it was clearly intended to prompt a negative response from its readers. If a police officer had used a shotgun or semi-auto rifle to defend himself, those terms would never have been used.

The Castle Doctrine bill passed with overwhelming support in both the House and Senate, and for good reason. This much-needed law makes it abundantly clear that innocent citizens can defend themselves from violent predators attacking them in their homes, businesses and cars.

Charles L. Cotton
TSRA Executive Director

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