A Colorado jury has rendered a rare award to the family of a burglar killed in the course of a crime. Verdicts like this one are likely to be used by advocates of Castle Doctrine or “Make-My-Day laws — laws designed to protect citizens from criminal liability in the protection of their homes, or in some cases, their businesses. The El Paso jury awarded roughly $300,000 to the family of Robert Johnson Fox, who was shot in the course of an attempted burglary of a car lot.
Fox broke into Southwest Auto Sales in 2009 with a friend, Brian Corbin. Corbin testified that two armed men came running toward them — one shouting “we’re gonna get you.” Numerous shots were fired and Fox, who went into a small shed, was hit by a .45-caliber rifle bullet that passed through the shed’s door. Notably, Fox had knives in his pockets and one strapped to his ankle, but the police found that he presented no threat to Milanovic or father Ljuban Milanovic and brother-in-law Srdjan Milanovic.
Fox, 20, left a three-year-old daughter who will receive $269,500 for loss of companionship and loss of future earnings. The six-person jury deliberated for over two days before rendering the verdict.
There have relatively few cases of civil liability for the killing or shooting of burglars. The premise of such liability is that you cannot kill or maim for property. However, make-my-day laws statutorily dictate that any entrance into a dwelling constitutes a threat to person not property. This triggers the privilege of self-defense. This protection has been extended to include not just homes but their curtilage. One such case was Katko v. Briney, 183 N.W.2d 657 (Iowa 1971), where the defendant owned an unoccupied farmhouse left to him by his parents. It was repeatedly broken into despite no trespass signs and boards on the windows. Briney then wired the house with a snare gun and shot Katko. He was found liable. While this case also addresses the common law rule against man traps or snare guns, it was premised on the principle that that no property is worth more than a human life. The court held:
“The intentional infliction upon another of harmful or offensive contact or other bodily harm by a means which is intended or likely to cause death or serious bodily harm, for the purpose of preventing or terminating the other’s intrusion upon the actor’s possession of land or chattels, is privileged if, but only if, the actor reasonably believes that the intruder, unless expelled or excluded, is likely to cause death or serious bodily harm to the actor or to a third person whom the actor is privileged to protect.”
This case presents a more difficult case for the defense as a business rather than a home. Notably, if Fox was brandishing a knife, the result would likely have been different. However, the witness insisted that the shooting began without any threat. Notably, there is no record of a criminal charge in the case.
We have seen cases, including the Horn case in Texas, where there was no threat to a homeowner, but no criminal charges were brought.