There's a piece of gallows humor you might hear if you bum around courthouse steps or firing ranges long enough. "If you shoot somebody on your porch," the rusty adage runs, "you'd better drag him inside the house."
And there's some truth rattling around those words. They're a reference to the "castle doctrine," a scrap of jurisprudence that came over on the boat from England and probably dates back to a time when men wanted nothing more than to throw back a few meads by the fire after a long day of evading the plague, without having to worry about the bloodthirsty Viking two doors down.
Updated for the modern homemaker, the castle doctrine means your residence is granted special legal standing — particularly when you have to fling bullets into an intruder. But it doesn't exactly mean a mortgage gives you a license to kill.
The castle doctrine exists in one form or another across the country. In some states, it's the assumed practice: more than half have carved it in stone with actual legislation, and Ohio has been in that group since 2008. But the statute is particularly noteworthy in Buckeye country because it's the spot in the code where shooters have the most latitude in terms of self-defense.
And thanks to recent events, the whole country is talking about self-defense.
In February, Florida teen Trayvon Martin was gunned down by a block-watch commando named George Zimmerman under suspicious circumstances. The gunman later claimed he thought he was jacking an armed and suspiciously hooded assailant; it turned out he shot down a kid in a hoodie packing nothing more than a bag of Skittles. Regardless, the shooting was initially squared thanks to the loose nature of Florida's self-defense laws. Cue the general outrage.
Nationwide, the heat from the Martin shooting has melted most debate down to puddles of bile, serving as a chance for old foes to bitch at each other about whether guns or people kill people. In Ohio, hard-liners on both sides of the Second Amendment actually agree: The current laws create too much gray area, and the day's not far off when we'll have to give the thumbs up or down on looser restrictions.
For now, here's what you'll need to know should a hooded assailant approach you with a deadly bag of candy.
KNOW WHEN TO RUN
Outside of your home, the basic checklist for using deadly force in the name of self-defense is pretty much the same from Solon to San Diego.
If you pull the trigger on someone, you're justified to do so if there's a reasonable belief that there was imminent danger of harm — i.e., shit was about to get real. But you don't get to play the self-defense card if you were the instigator of a dust-up that ends in bloodshed. Some states also require "necessity," meaning that nonviolent options weren't possible or were tried without success. But for violent episodes spanning a few seconds, this requirement usually gets little attention in the courtroom.
"If you are being threatened by someone with a gun, you don't have to try to go into mediation," explains Jonathan P. Witmer-Rich, a professor of law at Cleveland State University.
The final justification to drop a prospective assailant is probably the key one: whether or not you had the opportunity to haul your ass out of the area before shooting became the only option. Yes, traditionally, the law has favored flight over fight. The exception is when you're faced with a gun.
But through the common law — that slowly accumulating legal common sense that serves as the courtroom standard — most states acknowledge that, while seemingly a great idea, it's not your job to retreat inside your own home when confronted by danger. Nonetheless, in 2008, the ink dried on new legislation in Ohio that specifically said that.
The timing wasn't random. During the mid-2000s, the National Rifle Association started flexing its muscles in legislatures across the country, pushing for laws that would increase the rights of gun owners. The changes in the Ohio statute were twofold. The new law got rid of the duty to retreat from your house or vehicle when confronted. The second part performed some legal judo. Traditionally, the burden of proof in self-defense rested on whoever pulled the trigger — meaning a shooter had to convince a jury or authorities that the killing was justified. The new law introduced the presumption that if it's Colonel Mustard in his library with the revolver, it's automatically assumed to be self-defense.
The catch is that the prosecution can prove otherwise. Say you blow away a mohawked and tattooed intruder coming through the living-room window at night. According to the law, if you don't say another word after police arrive, they'll assume you drew while gripped in mortal fear. But if your distraught daughter comes downstairs, says the deceased was her harmless, unarmed boyfriend Zeke who gets drunk and crawls through the window every Saturday like clockwork — oh, and Dad never liked the guy to begin with because of the mohawk and tattoos — the cuffs are probably coming out.
That's what separates Ohio's statute from higher-proof castle doctrines elsewhere. If Zeke was going cold on a floor in Florida, you'd be OK, with or without your daughter's intervention. In the Sunshine state, all self-defense inside the home is justified.
"It doesn't matter if the intruder isn't using deadly force, it doesn't matter if the intruder isn't posing any danger to you — you can just shoot them to get them out of your house," Witmer-Rich says. "I think Ohio is pretty middle-of-the-road on this issue."
BEWARE OF RAGING CRACKHEADS
In legal realtalk, shootings inside the home rarely hit a courtroom, which is why Ohio operated so long without a specific doctrine on the books.
"You've got some guy coming into your house in the middle of the night when you're sleeping," says Christopher Thomarios, a Cleveland defense attorney. "You hear rustling, you open the door, and you shoot them. Who gets prosecuted there? How often do you get Joe Suburb prosecuted for shooting some guy who comes into his house with a knife? Not too much."
Since the law was passed in '08, only a handful of Ohio cases related to the castle doctrine have made headlines, although they have underscored the subtle differences between the old unstated provision and current law. Often, a little legal wiggle room thanks to new wording is all the difference.
Early this year, Butler County, just north of Cincinnati, saw such a case. A 75-year-old man reportedly suffering from Alzheimer's and dementia crashed his car into a stranger's house. The driver got out of the vehicle, stormed into the house, and headed for the basement, where he began Hulk-smashing the property. Inside, the homeowner, 84-year-old Charles Foster, confronted the whacked-out intruder, went back upstairs, and retrieved a gun. When he returned to the basement, he was attacked. In defense, Foster shot and killed the unexpected visitor.
A Butler County grand jury reviewed the case and OK'd the shooting.
"You and I might have said, 'Hell, I'm going to let this guy crash around in my house if he wants to, I'm going to go next door, call the police, and have them come get this guy out of my house,'" says Butler County prosecutor Mike Gmoser, who has no qualms with the outcome.
"That might have been, under the old law, the sensible thing to do. But hindsight is 20/20. And he did go arm himself, and he didn't have the duty to retreat."
Cuyahoga County prosecutors felt differently about the shooting that took place in Carl Kozlosky's house in 2009. A convicted felon on a crack binge broke into Kozlosky's Cleveland home in order to get some money from his girlfriend, a renter at the property. When the intruder started wailing on the woman, Kozlosky intervened, pulling the trigger when he believed the guy was going for a gun — but a gun was never found.
The jury convicted the homeowner of murder, but on appeal, the decision was overturned by the higher court due to the existing castle doctrine. The state hoped to run the issue up the food chain, but the Ohio Supreme Court declined to sniff over the matter.
SHOOT 'EM UP ANYWHERE
Today, post-Trayvon Martin, you can't get a clear snapshot of self-defense without the notion of "stand your ground" crowding the frame.
The Florida version of that law is what may justify Zimmerman's pull of the trigger, and depending on where your heels are dug in on the issue, the concept is either the logical end or an extreme perversion of the Second Amendment.
About a dozen states recognize stand your ground. The basic idea takes the same magic wand Ohio's castle doctrine waves over your homestead and points it at the public realm; under the law, you aren't bound by a duty to retreat in a self-defense situation if you've got a right to be there. That means if someone steps toward you anywhere from the pizza parlor to the parking lot, you can quick-draw, High Noon-style, without having to worry about whether you've properly scanned the exits for a getaway option.
For proponents, the stand-your-ground law is more realistic, considering most shootings happen in only a few adrenaline-greased heartbeats. To run or not to run isn't an equation your head can compute in a life-threatening situation, the thinking maintains, and such a requirement only gives overzealous prosecutors a sword to swing at shooters who were merely trying to defend themselves.
"If you and your wife or your girlfriend were getting in your car and somebody came up with a knife, would it be prudent to turn around and run," says Dan Clevenger, a firearms instructor with D&D Firearms Instructors. "It depends on the incident."
Because current Ohio law wraps a self-defense shooter in shades of gray, Clevenger and others believe the clarity provided by stand your ground isn't far off.
"Eventually that part of the law will come to Ohio," he says. "I think it will eventually change, because Ohio's conceal and carry laws have been changing for the better since 2004."
On the other side of the aisle, gun-safety advocates are not buying it. Lori O'Neill, vice chair of the National Gun Victims Action Council, says starting with the castle doctrine, and potentially continuing with stand your ground, these new laws give gun owners the opportunity to shrug off the legal repercussions of gunplay.
"What stand your ground says is, if you feel threatened in any way, you can shoot, no questions asked, and the presumption legally is that you were correct in doing so," she explains. "So it removes your legal responsibility to prove you are under deadly attack, and it's a presumption of innocence of a gun owner by virtue of the fact that they are a gun owner."
This spring, despite the heat over Trayvon Martin's death, gun lobbyists were in Columbus meeting with legislators about sending a stand-your-ground bill through the system. Nothing has been stamped for a vote yet, but supporters say the time is coming.
Down in Florida, George Zimmerman is currently back in a jail cell after violating the terms of his bond. He's set to go on trial for second-degree murder, although a flood of leaked details seems to alternately back up and throw into question the shooter's hold on a stand-your-ground defense.
So as of today, how would the country's most controversy-soaked self-defense matchup play in Ohio's courts? What if Zimmerman and Martin had crossed paths in Cleveland Heights? Without a stand-your-ground provision, the basic tenets of self-defense would have clicked in: Did Zimmerman fear for his life? Was he not the aggressor? And yes, could he have run away?
As we all know, only one side is still breathing to answer those questions, and whether you believe him probably depends on how you feel about hoodies.