There is a truly bizarre case out of California this week in which A 90-year-old California man Jay Leone was shot during an alleged burglary by a methamphetamine addict. The addict, Samuel Cutrufelli, 31, has now sued Leone for negligence. It is the type of case often referenced by legislators in support of Castle Doctrine or Make My Day laws — laws that I have long opposed. Indeed, this case is an example of why such laws are not needed. The case appears meritless and will likely face dismissal by the court.
Cutrufelli entered Leone’s home and put a gun to his head. He then tied up Leone with a belt and began to ransack the home. Leone wiggled free his hands and then convinced Cutrufelli to let him use the bathroom. He promptly grabbed one of five handguns in the house and confronted Cutrufelli in his closet. Cutrufelli then shot Leone in the jaw. Leone fired his gun and hit Cutrufelli but Cutrufelli was able to wrestle it away. He then put the gun to Leone’s head and allegedly pulled the trigger. However, the gun was now empty.
Cutrufelli, who is the father of two and charged with two counts of attempted murder, claims Leone caused him “great bodily injury, and other financial damage, including loss of Mr. Cutrufelli’s home, and also the dissolution of Mr. Cutrufelli’s marriage” from the negligence of his conduct. The lawsuit was filed on his behalf by his father and his criminal defense attorney
Cutrufelli’s lawyer, Sanford Troy, said Cutrufelli is a methamphetamine user and that the incident was part of a drug deal gone sideways. He says that Leone shot his client in the back when he was trying to flee. What is curious is that the defense has not linked Leone to the alleged drug deal and it is assumed (though not clear) that the allegation is directed at tenants living in the house. If true, that would be a rather attenuated claim.
Cutrufelli previously lost a motion to dismiss the charges due to the fact that the insurance company hired a “residential disaster reconstruction” team to clean up the blood-spattered house as well as claims of the interference with counsel in the hospital. Cutrufelli has a criminal record involving a prior conviction for attacking a pedestrian who complained about being nearly hit in a crosswalk. Cutrufelli responded by breaking a bottle over the 22-year-old victim’s head and using a folding knife to stab him four times.
We recently discussed the Castle Doctrine laws in a disturbing case out of Montana. There are likely to be many who will cite this case as a further justification of such laws. The Castle Doctrine is a generally a reference to the modern trend of legislatively empowering homeowners to use lethal force solely on the basis of a home invasion.
Under the common law, there was not “fear of prosecution or civil action for acting in defense of themselves and others” so long as you acted in reasonable self-defense or even “reasonable mistaken self-defense.” In the case of Courvoisier v. Raymond, 23 Colo. 113 (1896), a man chased a group out of his home only to fire when a man approached him outside his home from the stone-throwing mob. It turned out to be a deputy sheriff but the court found that Courvoisier could rely on reasonable mistaken self-defense.
The common law has long offered ample protections even for reasonable mistakes. These laws are based on an urban legend that people are routinely prosecuted for defending their homes from intruders. The laws have produced perverse results as in the infamous case of Tom Horn in Texas. Yet, the popularity of these laws have spawned “Make My Day Better” laws that extend the privilege of lethal force to businesses and cars. Montana’s law had been invoked in workplace shootings.
This case does not show that such laws are needed. To the contrary, anyone can file a negligence lawsuit, but the chances of success of such an action is exceptionally remote. Even if this man went to the home on a drug deal with third parties, Leone was acting under the privilege of self-defense.