Understanding the Citizens’ Right to Use Force

Police academies are woefully inadequate at teaching criminal law and criminal procedure. Typically, 40 hours or less are devoted to teaching criminal law (I’ve seen some states only require 16 hours). Generally, the teacher is a street cop, who may not spend a lot of time reading the statute books or slip opinions.

The focus of the classes is typically on defining what a “burglary” is, the difference between “assault” and “battery,” and elements of each crime.  Very little time is put on the rights of citizens to use force to defend themselves and their property.  Unfortunately, this means that police officers sometimes arrest the wrong people.

020114_1259_0018_lsms_aFor example, here in my state, the law allows a property owner or a person acting as his agent (such as a merchant or a security guard) to use reasonable force, not including deadly force, to end another person’s trespass upon their property.  This could be a bar tender removing a disorderly drunk from a club, or a security guard escorting a shoplifter from a store.

In one case I am familiar with, a store clerk was working alone in an upscale cigar shop in a shopping mall.  Two males walked in, and one began to engage the clerk in conversation.  The clerk recognized that the one male was trying to distract him, while the other was trying to get behind a counter to remove some high dollar merchandise.  The clerk ordered the men to leave the store, which they refused, and the clerk called mall security for assistance.  The men began to threaten the clerk, a military veteran.  In response, the clerk physically tossed both men out of the front of the store.

The law is pretty clear on this matter.  The clerk was an authorized agent of the merchant, responsible for the store and its merchandise.  The men engaged in activity the clerk recognized as criminal, and ordered the men to leave, but they refused.  The clerk then physically removed them, without injuring them, which would seem to be a reasonable amount of force.  Yet, the responding deputy arrested the clerk.

The deputy claimed that the clerk battered the men (any unlawful touching of another could be considered battery), based solely on the statements of the men ejected from the store.  The clerk described the exact events I outlined above, while the two ejected men said the clerk “went crazy” for no reason, and threw them from the store.  The explanation of the two men does not appear reasonable to most cops with any level of experience.  Additionally, the deputy did not watch the store video that the clerk offered to show her.

After spending several hours in jail, posting a bond, missing work, and securing an attorney, the clerk got to one of the initial hearings.  Once the prosecution took a look at the video, the state immediately moved to drop all charges.  At this point, though, the clerk has lost a lot of money and time.  Plus the clerk now has an arrest on his record that he will have to explain when he applies for certain jobs or security clearances.

Part of the problem in this case was the lack of proper training given to the deputy.  The clerk told me that the deputy didn’t have a bad attitude, but rather she just did not seem to understand the law.  I believe that this is a common point of failure in the academies and field training programs.

I once encountered an instructor who advised recruits not to even consider self defense in any case they worked, because (1) we can’t make those decisions in the field, and (2) if it really was self defense, the defendant can bring up at trial and be acquitted anyway.  I was blown away by the ignorance of this instructor.  First, it is our job to investigate possible crimes and make decisions on whether or not a crime happened, and if so, who did it.  Second, if we arrest the victim because we don’t understand or want to learn the laws on self defense, aren’t we really then the bad guys?

Hopefully, you have a solid grasp on when you as a police officer are allowed to use force, and what would be reasonable.  In many states, the same standards apply to all other citizens as well, and this may be a good “rule of thumb” to go by.  Keep in mind that in some cases a non-law enforcement officer may be entitled to use more force than a police officer would be, and in many states force may be used to defend property, in addition to the lives of the victim and his or her loved ones.

It is an ethical obligation to know your jurisdictions laws on self defense and the use of force by citizens so we do not wrongfully arrest and prosecute victims instead of the bad guys.

Self defense laws are normally not too difficult to understand.  Sometimes their application becomes difficult when you are investigating cases, but arresting the wrong person because of our own ignorance is unacceptable.

Stay safe!

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Richard Johnson is a gun writer, police trainer and really bad joke teller. Check out his other writing on sites like Human Events, The Firearm Blog and Police & Security News.

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