High court has tried to tell us where the line is

Tom West, West Words

We may be getting ahead of ourselves here, but the Minnesota Supreme Court has been trying to explain where the limits lie in cases where people attempt to defend their own home. Many folks around here are talking about the concept of “castle doctrine” in the wake of Little Falls resident Byron Smith’s shooting of two alleged burglars in his home on Thanksgiving Day.

Several Supreme Court rulings, likely to be cited if Smith ever comes to trial, could be key to how the judge instructs the jury.

Even more important than whether Smith is convicted or not, these cases may be instructive to the rest of us about how we should respond if faced with a home invasion of our own.

In State vs. Carothers, the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled on whether or not a person needs to retreat from his home.

In that case, the defendant, Tony Carothers, was convicted of second-degree murder. He had recently moved into a trailer home with his girlfriend’s family and had good reasons to purchase a .25 caliber handgun to protect the household.

On the night of the shooting, Carothers and his girlfriend were playing cards in the trailer with Kevin Lee and his cousin. Lee was 6 feet tall and a “muscular 260 pounds,” said the high court. He was also an enforcer for the Gangster Disciples.

At the end of the night, an argument broke out, in which Lee claimed that Carothers and his girlfriend owed him $20 for the last card game. The girlfriend’s mother had her son pay Kevin Lee.

Accounts as to exactly what happened differ, but, Lee left the trailer, then returned uninvited, and Carothers, while brandishing the handgun, confronted Lee about the $20, Lee removed his coat and advanced on Carothers with the apparent intention of beating him up. Carothers then shot Lee six times, killing him.

On June 17, 1999, the high court reversed the conviction because the trial court judge had instructed the jury that Carothers had a duty to retreat from the home where he lived.

Writing for the court, Justice Russell A. Anderson wrote in part, “(R)easonable force may be used upon or toward the person of another without the other’s consent when the following circumstances exist or the actor reasonably believes them to exist: …

“(3) when used by any person in resisting or aiding another to resist an offense against the person; or

“(4) when used by any person in lawful possession of real or personal property, or by another assisting the person in lawful possession, in resisting a trespass upon or other unlawful interference with such property.

“Minn. Stat. 609.06, subd. 1(3)-(4).

“The intentional taking of the life of another is not authorized by section 609.06, except when necessary in resisting or preventing an offense which the actor reasonably believes exposes the actor or another to great bodily harm or death, or preventing the commission of a felony in the actor’s place of abode.”

Reading that last paragraph, it appears that Smith may have legal standing for acting as he did. However, just two years later, on July 12, 2001, the Minnesota Supreme Court again ruled in a defense of dwelling case, State vs. Glowacki.

In that case, William Glowacki, a member of the Corcoran City Council at the time, met a woman in Dothan, Ala. One thing led to another, and she took steps to move in with him. Then, one night they got into an argument that escalated into hitting and kicking. Because the woman was what the court called an “invited guest,” neither party was obligated to leave the dwelling, but Glowacki was convicted of fifth-degree assault.

Writing for the court, Justice Paul H. Anderson, went into some detail about the Carothers case, and the importance of “reasonableness” in cases of self-defense. Then he wrote the following, “Thus we adopt the following rule: There is no duty to retreat from one’s own home when acting in self-defense in the home, regardless of whether the aggressor is a co-resident. But the lack of a duty to retreat does not abrogate the obligation to act reasonably when using force in self-defense. Therefore, in all situations in which a party claims self-defense, even absent a duty to retreat, the key inquiry will still be into the reasonableness of the use of force and the level of force under the specific circumstances of each case.”

During the last legislative session, Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Lake Crystal, a former police officer, authored a bill to strengthen the case of home- owners when they are defending their own home. In vetoing the bill, Gov. Mark Dayton, referred to another case, State vs. Richardson.

In that case, Jamie Glenn Richardson shot Robert Van Der Molen in the head, while the unarmed Van Der Molen was defending his ex-girlfriend from Richardson, against whom she had a restraining order. Van Der Molen fell and Richardson shot him again in the head. The coroner ruled either shot would have been fatal. The court wrote in part, “Even when defendant’s beliefs as to the gravity of the peril and necessity of force are reasonable, ‘he may not use more force than he reasonably believes necessary to relieve the risk of harm.’”

In the sad Thanksgiving Day tale, three lessons may be learned: First, don’t go into other people’s homes uninvited; second, if an unwanted intruder is in your home, call 911 if you can, but if you can’t, use only the minimal force necessary to end the danger because you will be second-guessed; and third, hate the sins and not the sinners.

Tom West is the editor and general manager of the Record. He may be reached at (320) 632-2345 or by e-mail at [email protected].