October 9, 2005 Sunday
Washington Post: A Faulty Law, a Feud, a Fatality
Last month John Frederick Ames, a bankruptcy lawyer from Richmond, was acquitted of the murder of his neighbor, Oliver “Perry” Brooks [Metro, Sept. 17]. It was the latest chapter in a story worthy of William Faulkner that concerns an arcane 1887 law and a state legislature that refused to repeal it.
The dispute that led to Brooks’s death began in 1989, when Ames, who had purchased a 675-acre Caroline County farm from a widow facing bankruptcy, sent his neighbors a registered letter informing them that he was going to build a fence around his property. The letter also said that he was going to charge his neighbors for half the cost of the fence, which amounted to thousands of dollars. Ames said the 1887 law allowed him to bill them for the fence even without their consent.
Ames’s neighbors, who included retirees on fixed incomes, received bills of $6,000 to $45,000. All of them, including Brooks, who was living on $400 a month from Social Security, refused to pay. Ames had billed Brooks $45,000 for his share of the fence. Ames reportedly offered to forget about the $45,000 if Brooks would deed over some of his land, but Brooks refused. The case went through the courts, and in 1991, Ames finally prevailed in the Virginia Supreme Court.
His neighbors then scraped together the money for the fence — all but Brooks, that is, who continued to refuse to pay. Ames subsequently sued his neighbor for $450,000 for fence damage caused by a bull that Brooks owned. The bull repeatedly broke the fence and strayed onto Ames’s cattle farm. Ames called these bull incursions an “intentional disregard” of his rights. Brooks responded with obstinacy and anger.
The bad blood finally boiled over in April 2004, when Brooks’s bull once again strayed onto Ames’s land. Despite court orders barring him from entering Ames’s property, Brooks went to retrieve his livestock. An armed Ames told him to leave the animal. When Brooks brandished a stick he used to herd the bull, Ames shot in the face and then four more times.
Ames said the shooting was in self-defense. But his acquittal by a jury last month on a murder charge on the basis of self-defense isn’t the end of the story. Ames still may get the land that he was seeking from Brooks. He previously sued the Brooks family for $11.3 million in an action that originally cited everything from infliction of emotional distress to terrorism. He recently withdrew that action, but he still has a lien on the Brooks property and an outstanding fence payment that could exceed $150,000 with interest. The Brooks family is suing Ames for wrongful death.
Ames may fit the stereotype of a lawyer who will use any law to his advantage, regardless of the cost to others, but the Virginia General Assembly deserves equal blame for the mess that culminated in the death of a man. It repeatedly failed to repeal the archaic law that allowed the feud to get going in the first place.
When the state Supreme Court ruled in favor of Ames in 1991, it noted that Virginia was out of step with the common-law rule that a landowner’s boundary line is a lawful fence and that a cattle owner is liable for trespass by his animals. Virginia, however, does not impose such liability on livestock owners and allows them to force neighbors to pay toward “fencing out” livestock. Despite the feud and requests for the law to be changed, the legislature did not act. Only after Brooks was dead and Ames was facing a murder charge did it change the law — and then only to exempt landowners without livestock, which would not have protected Brooks.
The common law and most states impose costs on livestock owners for any damage that their animals cause to a neighbor. This sensible “fence-in” approach recognizes that a livestock owner should not be able to impose the cost of his or her enterprise on neighbors.
A fundamental purpose of the law is to reduce conflicts among neighbors by maintaining clear, consistent and fair rules. The Virginia legislature clearly failed in that duty. It may be true that good fences make good neighbors, but the Brooks killing shows that bad laws, like bad fences, make for bad neighbors.