Ob Populus

No Man is a Law Unto Himself

In Uncategorized on June 12, 2012 at 6:42 pm

English: first Indiana supreme court chambers

English: first Indiana supreme court chambers (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Unless you are in Indiana, where homeowners are now allowed to shoot the police if they believe the officer entered their home illegally.

A law signed by Governor Daniels this past spring has become effective and it strengthens the Castle Doctrine beyond any rational bounds as homeowners may take upon themselves to decide what entry is lawful or not; and then act according, including the use of deadly force against on-duty police officers.

As many may know, the Castle Doctrine stands for the principle that a homeowner may resort to force upon an intrusion into one’s home. If not expanded too far, it is a common sense approach as one may assume that a person who enters your home unlawfully, means you harm. However, even common sense approaches can be taken too far and that is what has occurred in Indiana.  

The impetus for this new legislation was a court decision by the Indians State Supreme Court that held that citizens were not allowed to use force against police officers attempting to gain entry into their home even if the occupant reasonably believed that the officers were acting unlawfully. The major problem with this new state law is that it is based on a homeowner’s belief of whether or not the officer is acting lawfully or not; and in the arena of search and seizure law, most people are woefully inadequate in understanding what is lawful or not. One may read the Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution (which governs when the government may enter one’s home) but the text itself does not give a full picture as to the state of the law. For that, one must read court decisions and as many people do not, they are ignorant as to the true state of the law.

The court decision that started this brouhaha was Richard L. Barnes v. State. Barnes involved the police responding to a domestic dispute between a husband & wife. When police arrived, both parties were observed outside of the residence, apparently unharmed. When the couple entered their home, the police attempted to follow them in. The husband, Richard Barnes, refused the police entry. The situation escalated and became physical. Mr. Barnes was ultimately arrested for battery of a police officer and he was convicted of this charge in a court of law. His argument upon appeal was that the police entry into his home was unlawful and that the jury should have been allowed to consider a castle doctrine defense as to the unlawfulness of the police conduct. The Indiana Supreme Court disagreed with Mr. Barnes’ contention and affirmed his conviction. 

Although not as old as the “Castle Doctrine”, there is the general principle of law that one may not resist a police officer. Any issues surrounding the appropriateness of the officer’s conduct can be reviewed later. There is a general consensus that to allow otherwise would breed contempt for the rule of law and lead to unnecessary violence.

There is also a practical consideration in not allowing a castle doctrine defense in police-homeowner confrontations. As stated above, the law as to when the police may enter a home (either with or without a warrant) is very complex. For an ordinary person to understand what police conduct is lawful and what is not is mostly beyond their knowledge. There are nuances to the law. A person may believe that the officer’s conduct is unlawful, when in fact it is perfectly acceptable.

In wading into this controversy, the state of Indiana is treading on dangerous ground. At first blush it seems to afford homeowners more protection, but in reality it does not as assumptions of what is lawful or not will lead to confrontations. At a minimum, these confrontations will lead to more homeowners being arrested and with confrontations always comes the risk of injury or worse.

Far from helping, this law only muddies the waters and without a clear picture, lives will invariably be damaged. It is best to leave these situations to the courts to handle after the fact – when emotions have cooled.

The Indiana Supreme Court got it right, sometimes it is best not to second guess the courts. They understand the law and its implications better than most.

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