Hulda Lane shooting: When is it legal to use deadly force?
Deadly force is legal in Connecticut when used by people who reasonably believe they are acting to protect a threatened life, defend against a threat of great bodily harm, or to ward off an attempted break-in at their home or workplace — that’s the core of relevant state statutes, as supported by interviews with state and local officials and reports by the Office of Legislative Research in Hartford.
The question arises in the wake of an incident where reports suggest a Ridgefield homeowner may have fired gunshots at people attempting to steal his car.
Gunshots were reported on Hulda Lane around 3 a.m. June 5. A 15-year-old girl later turned up with a gunshot wound in her back at a hospital in Waterbury, and Waterbury police pursued and eventually rammed a stolen car with a 19-year-old and three minors in it.
Ridgefield police said they suspected that the people involved in the shooting may have taken in part in “previous incidents of larcenies from motor vehicles and stolen motor vehicles.”
Police have not said how many shots were fired, or whether they believe there was an exchange of gunfire or just one person shooting.
No arrest had been made in the Ridgefield incident as of Press time this week, and police weren’t saying much about it.
“The incident remains under investigation,” Ridgefield Police Chief John Roche said Tuesday. “The Ridgefield Police Department Detective Bureau, inspectors of the Danbury Superior Court and the Major Crime Unit of the Connecticut State Police have been involved in the investigation.”
Decision to prosecute
Cases involving use of force and use of deadly force can be complex, but there is a process.
“Ultimately a decision on whether to prosecute is going to be made by the state’s attorney for the judicial district,” said Len Boyle, deputy chief state’s attorney of Connecticut.
The state’s attorney for the judicial district of Danbury, which includes Ridgefield, is Stephen J. Sedensky III.
“We don’t have a statewide protocol or policy,” Boyle said. “What our prosecutors do, they’re guided by our two statutes that pertain to when use of force and deadly force is permissible in defence of person or property: 53a-19 and 53a-20.”
Both statutes address force as a continuum, beginning with the use of “physical force” and moving on to specifically address “deadly physical force.”
The core of Sec. 53a-19, “Use of physical force in defense of person,” states:
“A person is justified in using reasonable physical force upon another person to defend himself or a third person from what he reasonably believes to be the use or imminent use of physical force, and he may use such degree of force which he reasonably believes to be necessary for such purpose; except that deadly physical force may not be used unless the actor reasonably believes that such other person is (1) using or about to use deadly physical force, or (2) inflicting or about to inflict great bodily harm.
“...a person is not justified in using deadly physical force upon another person if he or she knows that he or she can avoid the necessity of using such force with complete safety (1) by retreating, except that the actor shall not be required to retreat if he or she is in his or her dwelling.“
The second statute, Sec. 53a-20, concerns “Use of physical force in defense of premises.”
It states a person “...is justified in using reasonable physical force upon another person when and to the extent that he reasonably believes such to be necessary to prevent or terminate the commission or attempted commission of a criminal trespass by such other person in or upon such premises; but he may use deadly physical force under such circumstances only (1) in defense of a person as prescribed in section 53a-19, or (2) when he reasonably believes such to be necessary to prevent an attempt by the trespasser to commit arson or any crime of violence, or (3) to the extent that he reasonably believes such to be necessary to prevent or terminate an unlawful entry by force into his dwelling…”
‘Defense of property’
A related statute, “Sec. 53a-21. Use of physical force in defense of property” says “a person is justified in using reasonable physical force upon another person when and to the extent that he reasonably believes such to be necessary to prevent an attempt by such other person to commit larceny or criminal mischief involving property” and also “to regain property which he reasonably believes to have been acquired by larceny.” However it addresses use of deadly force with a reference back to the initial statute in the series: “...but he may use deadly physical force under such circumstances only in defense of person as prescribed in section 53a-19.”
Addressing 53a-20, the defense of premises statute, Deputy Chief State’s Attorney Boyle said, “You can use reasonable physical force, not deadly force, to defend property. You can use deadly physical force if you reasonably believe the person is about to commit a crime of violence or the person is attempting to unlawfully enter your dwelling.”
Boyle added, “In any one of these situations what the prosecutor is going to have to do is weigh all the circumstances, and what it’s going to come down to is what’s reasonable.
“These questions are usually going to turn on the issue of reasonableness.”
Another state official who did not want to be cited in a news story offered some clarification on what some of the terms and laws mean. “There’s laws about when you can use force, self- defense laws. Ordinary force is like punching or tackling; deadly force is like shooting someone or stabbing someone — you can only do that under specific circumstances,” he said.
“You can only use deadly force if you really believe you’re in eminent danger of death or serious bodily injury.”
He added that in the context of these laws “serious bodily injury” is “not just getting beaten up — as a general rule you can only use deadly force if you believe you’re about to be killed.”
The issue of use of deadly force is also addressed in a report by the Office of Legislative Research which was done in 2012 when the legislature was considering changes to the law in the wake of the Cheshire home-invasion murders.
The report, “The Castle doctrine and stand your ground law,” says, in part, “Connecticut law justifies the use of reasonable physical force, including deadly force, in defense of premises. Connecticut courts have recognized the common law privilege to challenge an unlawful entry into one's home, to the extent that a person's conduct does not rise to the level of a crime. Deadly force is justified in defense of one's property by a person who is privileged to be on the premises and who reasonably believes such force is necessary to prevent an attempt by the criminal trespasser to commit any crime of violence.”
The 2012 office of legislative research report also said: “The Castle Doctrine is incorporated into Connecticut law governing the use of physical force in defense of premises. This law states that a person who possesses or controls a premises ... is justified in using reasonable physical force upon another person when he or she reasonably believes it to be necessary to prevent or stop someone from criminally trespassing.
“Deadly force is reasonable only (1) to defend oneself or another; (2) when one reasonably believes deadly force is necessary to prevent an attempt by the trespasser to commit arson or any violent crime; or (3) to the extent the person reasonably believes it is necessary and only to prevent or terminate an unlawful entry by force into his or her dwelling or place of work.”
Addressing the Castle Doctrine, which underlies the laws in 46 states, the report said: “Typically, deadly force is considered justified homicide only in cases when the actor reasonably feared imminent peril of death or serious bodily harm to oneself or another.”