Florida’s ‘castle doctrine’ provides rights for shooting would-be robbers

Susan Jacobson |Orlando Sentinel Staff Writer

May 4, 2009

 

In the past 4 1/2 months, six Central Floridians met firepower with firepower when they witnessed or were victims of a robbery. The past four times, a robber ended up dead.

Such shootings are routinely reviewed by state attorneys to determine if they were justified. But the chances of anyone being prosecuted are slim, lawyers said.

The reason: Florida law gives residents and business owners near-impunity to shoot invaders in their homes or businesses.

“If someone came in an office — mine or anybody else’s — and was trying to rob or commit a forcible felony, I have an absolute right to shoot them,” said Cheney Mason, an Orlando criminal-defense attorney who once found himself in just that position.

Laws vary from state to state, and Florida has one of the country’s more liberal approaches. Florida law doesn’t require residents to retreat before shooting home burglars. The provision, known as the “castle doctrine,” is thought to have originated in English common-law rules and the notion that “one’s home is one castle,” according to a Connecticut General Assembly attorney.

The presumption is that such a shooting prevents imminent death or great bodily harm to self or family, said Shane Fischer, a Winter Park criminal-defense lawyer.

Law provides some immunity

Shootings of business burglars are justifiable for similar reasons, said the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

The law provides immunity from criminal prosecution and civil lawsuits in most cases. Prosecutions are rare, Fischer said.

“The State Attorney’s Office is too busy prosecuting real crimes to prosecute a law-abiding citizen defending their business,” Fischer wrote in an e-mail to the Orlando Sentinel. “Plus, no jury in the world is going to have sympathy for the dead burglar.”

Prosecutors will review a March 31 shooting of a robber by a pharmacist and a Jan. 9 fatal shooting of a robber by a customer at a carwash, both in south Orange County. Ocoee police deemed the Jan. 7 shooting of an armed robber by a convenience-store customer justified. New Smyrna Beach police reached the same preliminary conclusion about a Feb. 7 fatal shooting by a pharmacy security guard.

‘Moral right to protect your life’

According to the National Rifle Association, 23 states have their own a version of the castle doctrine. A Connecticut General Assembly study found 15 states adopted castle-doctrine bills in 2005 and 2006.

Almost anybody other than convicted felons can legally own a firearm in Florida without a license, which is required only to carry a concealed weapon. But federal law imposes severe restrictions on short-barrel rifles and shotguns, silencers and automatic weapons such as machine guns.

“If somebody’s trying to kill you, you have a fundamental civil, human and moral right to protect your life,” said Alan Korwin, an Arizona author and publisher of gunlaws.com. “It is the most serious, traumatic, emotional situation you will ever be in.”

Mason doesn’t remember his experience exactly that way. When a drug dealer stormed into his office and scared his staff, Mason was ready with a 9mm semiautomatic pistol aimed at the man’s heart.

“I pulled a gun and ordered him out, and he ran away,” Mason said. “If you believe he’s armed and you’re threatened, you don’t have to wait until you’re shot first.”

Case histories

*March 31 A pharmacist shoots an armed robber at a south Orange County drugstore. The robber then shoots himself to death.

*Feb. 7 A security guard shoots dead an armed robber who tries to steal oxycodone from a New Smyrna Beach pharmacy.

*Jan. 9 A customer at a South Orange Blossom Trail carwash pulls a handgun when two men with a sawed-off shotgun try to rob him. One robber is killed.

*Jan. 7 A customer shoots a robber dead at a convenience store in Ocoee. “I’m upset that I did take a man’s life,” he says later. “But the man should not have robbed the place.”

*Dec. 23 A passer-by trades gunfire with a mugger in the parking lot at Orlando Fashion Square mall. The mugger is wounded.

*Dec. 23 A west Orange man, 91, scares off two home invaders by shooting his .38-caliber revolver. He misses.

*In 1997 and again in 1998 Orlando convenience-store owner Nam “Jay” Chun shoots and kills a robber. “I hate guns,” Chun said. “But if they mess with me, I’ll mess with them.”

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