Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Rendell weighs bill to expand self-defense law for shootings

HARRISBURG - Should Pennsylvanians have the right to use deadly force in virtually any place they feel threatened? Does your "castle" extend past the walls of your home?

In the next seven days, Gov. Rendell must decide whether to sign into law a controversial measure known as the castle doctrine. (File Photo / AP)
In the next seven days, Gov. Rendell must decide whether to sign into law a controversial measure known as the castle doctrine. (File Photo / AP)Read more

HARRISBURG - Should Pennsylvanians have the right to use deadly force in virtually any place they feel threatened? Does your "castle" extend past the walls of your home?

Now those questions are on Gov. Rendell's desk. In the next seven days he must decide whether to sign into law a controversial measure expanding people's rights to defend themselves with deadly force - also known as the castle doctrine.

In essence, the governor must wade into a debate between supporters who call it a "stand your ground" bill and opponents who label it a "shoot first" measure.

The bill, which overwhelmingly passed the House on Monday and had already cleared the Senate, would allow individuals who perceive a threat to use force, even lethal force, in places beyond their homes, including their cars and businesses.

Pennsylvania law, like that of New Jersey and most other states, already establishes that a person has a right to defend himself in his home.

In at least two dozen states, however, the law goes further, removing a person's "duty to retreat" - say, to rush inside and bolt the door - before using deadly force.

The measure, part of an otherwise noncontroversial bill that would close loopholes in the state Megan's Law, reached Rendell's desk Friday, tripping a 10-day clock for him to act on it.

He has not announced whether he will sign or veto the bill. Rendell, a former Philadelphia district attorney, did say he thought the measure was an "unnecessary solution for something that is not a problem."

In Pennsylvania, similar proposals have been kicked around for several years, supported by the National Rifle Association. The NRA has backed such bills in other states as well.

As the latest bill gained momentum in Harrisburg this year, several law enforcement groups lined up against it - the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association, the Pennsylvania State Police, and dozens of police chiefs from across the state.

Proponents of the expanded castle doctrine, such as the bill's sponsor, Rep. Scott Perry (R., York), said it was a matter of basic self-defense.

"If you have a legal right to be there, you should have a legal right to defend yourself," said Perry, an Iraq war veteran. "Right now, you are more valuable in your home than your driveway."

He said he had heard of law-abiding citizens who had to "fend off the D.A. and fend off a civil trial" after defending themselves from attack.

Perry's bill contains a provision aimed at curbing such lawsuits: Individuals who use deadly force against a perceived assailant couldn't be sued by that assailant. It also says the castle doctrine doesn't protect people engaged in criminal activity.

The district attorneys association has called the bill a "defense attorney's dream." Association president Ed Marsico, who is district attorney of Dauphin County, envisions people accused of a crime using such a law to claim they acted in self-defense, making it harder for prosecutors to prevail in court.

"Our concern is that it gives criminals a built-in defense when there is a shooting," Marsico said. "Removing the 'duty to retreat' is very troublesome. You are encouraging the taking of a life."

Montgomery County District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman said she, too, did not want the state's existing castle doctrine expanded, and warned of the "level of violence it would authorize on our streets."

"I am deeply troubled by this piece of legislation that has been passed and is sitting on the governor's desk," she said. "We have a well-established and well-functioning set of rules that define self-defense, and in Montgomery County they work well.

"This completely eliminates the obligation to consider retreat. I can see too many possibilities of thugs fighting each other, and saying they shot because 'I thought that guy was going to kill me.' "

That scenario is familiar to prosecutors in southern Ohio, where a similar law has been on the books for two years. In rural Pike County, Prosecutor Rob Junk said a dispute in April involving rival drug dealers ended with a man shot through the heart as he sat in his car.

Junk sought a murder conviction that carried a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. But the attacker's lawyer argued that the man was protected under the castle doctrine - and the jury reduced the charge to reckless homicide, with a maximum five-year sentence.

"We were lucky to get that," Junk said in an interview. "I love guns, and I love to shoot, but we don't need the [expanded] castle doctrine. Normal, law-abiding citizens are not being arrested, indicted, and convicted because of thugs who are breaking into their house or carjacking them."

Pennsylvania defense lawyer William Costopoulos, a familiar sight in high-profile criminal trials in Harrisburg, likes the legislation.

"I don't think it has anything to do with defense attorneys or anything to do with district attorneys," Costopoulos said. Rather, he said, the goal is "for law-abiding citizens to take action when their life is in jeopardy without worrying about running into their house."

As the bill awaited the governor's action, the lobbying raged on. The NRA urged members to "contact Gov. Rendell today and respectfully urge him to protect law-abiding Pennsylvanians." The gun-control advocacy group CeasefirePA urged him on Friday to veto "a bill which recklessly expands Pennsylvania's existing castle doctrine . . . putting our families and law enforcement officers at serious and completely unnecessary risk."

Rendell has said he supports the existing castle doctrine but thinks the expanded version could "precipitate an additional level of violence."

A veto could have consequences beyond the "castle" issue. That's because the wording was attached to a bill that would spell out that convicted sex offenders who are homeless or had come from other states must register with local police.

So Rendell, who as governor has had little success in arguing for tougher gun control and is in his final months in office, has a lot to think about.

"I am taking it very seriously," he said last week. "I am weighing the balance."

Expanding 'Castle Doctrine'

Below are excerpts from Pennsylvania House Bill 1926, which awaits Gov. Rendell's signature:

"The General Assembly finds that:

"(1) It is proper for law-abiding people to protect themselves, their families and others from intruders and attackers without fear of prosecution or civil action for acting in defense of themselves and others.

"(2) The castle doctrine is a common-law doctrine of ancient origins which declares that a home is a person's castle.

"(3) ... The Constitution of Pennsylvania guarantees that the 'right of the citizens to bear arms in defense of themselves and the state shall not be questioned.'

"(4) Persons residing in or visiting this commonwealth have a right to expect to remain unmolested within their homes or vehicles.

"(5) No person should be required to surrender his or her personal safety to a criminal, nor should a person be required to needlessly retreat in the face of intrusion or attack outside the person's home or vehicle."

SOURCE: Pennsylvania General AssemblyEndText