Senate weighs self-defense rights

The state Senate will take a final vote Monday night on a proposal to expand North Carolina's laws allowing deadly force in self-defense cases.

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Laura Leslie

The state Senate will take a final vote Monday night on a proposal to expand North Carolina’s self-defense laws.

At issue is what’s known as the “Castle Doctrine” – the idea that a homeowner has the right to use deadly force to defend his or her person, family or property against someone breaking into the home, because it's reasonable to expect that such a criminal might pose a danger of death or serious harm.

Under current North Carolina law, it's not always so clear. A district attorney can challenge the use of deadly force in these cases. And at that point, it’s up to the homeowner to prove his or her actions were reasonable.

Senate Bill 34, sponsored by Davie Republican Andrew Brock, would move the burden of proof from the homeowner to the district attorney. If a district attorney wants to prosecute you for shooting someone who was breaking into your house, there would be a presumption in your favor that your fear was reasonable, and the DA would have to prove otherwise.

Most senators who spoke in today’s debate supported that part of the bill. But some were less supportive of an amendment by Nash Republican Buck Newton to include not just homes but motor vehicles and businesses under the Castle Doctrine.

“It is common sense,” Newton said. “There are just many, many instances in our society where this question needs to be cleared up. People, we all know, have the right to defend themselves.”

Wake Democrat Dan Blue said the current law already allows the use of deadly force in self-defense in cases of clear and imminent danger in any setting. While he praised the added protection for homeowners, he argued it shouldn’t be extended to businesses.

“If you’re in a crowded area, on a public street or in a public park, there are usually other people around,” Blue said. “And unless it’s clear that you are under threat, you ought not be able just to discharge firearms or use deadly force, because oftentimes, other people around get caught up in it.” 

Durham Democrat Floyd McKissick argued against the inclusion of vehicles, asking what would happen if a nervous driver was approached in a rough neighborhood.

The person knocking on the window might just be a panhandler, a window-washer, or someone asking directions, McKissick said. “But if you’re already apprehensive, you might just decide to shoot ‘em without really wondering about what their true motives are. And once that person’s dead, they’re not going to be able to testify about their intent.

"And I guarantee you," McKissick added, "somebody’s going to say in defense that ‘they tried to get into my car.’ Unless there’s some witnesses, that execution has occurred.”

Newton countered that the measure wouldn’t stop a district attorney from prosecuting a case like that, saying the Senate could sit around for weeks dreaming up such scenarios. He said the point is to reassure people that they won’t be treated like criminals for reasonable self-defense.

“The person employing deadly force in defense of themselves, they only have a moment or two to make these decisions,” Newton said. “And what happens frequently is other people come along afterward, and they second-guess that decision, because hindsight being 20/20, maybe after the fact it’s clear that they didn’t have to use deadly force. But at the time they pulled the trigger, or the time they used deadly force, it was not so clear. And that’s really the purpose of this bill.”

The measure won tentative approval today, 37-13. 

Bonus video:

At right, Senator Newton explains why he felt businesses and cars should be added to the bill.

And below, Senator McKissick details his concerns about extending the Castle Doctrine to vehicles.


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