There is an interesting criminal case out of Minnesota that highlights both criminal and tort doctrines on the defense of self and defense of property. Landis Rachel Hill, 31, and her boyfriend, Christopher Dwayne Grayson, were arrested after Hill ran over a man who allegedly robbed them. Al Rakip J. Zaidi, 21, died from “severe head trauma” after being hit by their 2001 Ford Expedition.
Hill and Grayson reportedly told the police that they were sleeping in their car when Zaidi took a cell phone and money from the front seat. Grayson then chased Zaidi with a baseball bat as Hill chased him in the car. Hill eventually ran him over and then left the scene.
Both Hill and Grayson later turned themselves into police. Grayson was not charged but Hill is charged with second-degree murder and criminal vehicular homicide.
The case highlights rivaling doctrines that we often discuss in Torts. Many states now have “Castle doctrine” laws, which allow people to use lethal force in defense of their homes. Called “Make My Day” laws in some states, there are also “Make My Day Better” laws allowing people to use lethal force in defense of other property like cars. There are also laws like “Stand Your Ground” discussed in such well-known cases as the trial of George Zimmerman (though it was ultimately not used in favor of a conventional self-defense claim).
Minnesota has a Castle Doctrine law. However, it does not have a Stand Your Ground law and there is a “duty to retreat” before using lethal force outside of the home. The law specifically states:
609.065 JUSTIFIABLE TAKING OF LIFE.
“The intentional taking of the life of another is not authorized by section 609.06, except when necessary in resisting or preventing an offense which the actor reasonably believes exposes the actor or another to great bodily harm or death, or preventing the commission of a felony in the actor’s place of abode.”
This case is particularly bad for the defense because it is a case of pursuit or retaliation. The danger had passed with the flight of the alleged felon. Even under the common law (which does not require retreat), you cannot retaliate. The privilege of self-defense exists only in the moment of danger and gives no license to mete out justice after the threat has passed.
The case also highlights the doctrines related to the protection or recovery of property. The common law does not allow force calculated to cause serious bodily harm or death in the protection of property. In famous cases like Bird v. Holbrook, 4 Bing. 628, 130 Eng. Rep. 911 (1825), courts have imposed liability in the use of snare guns or man traps to protect property because “[n]o man can do indirectly that which he is forbidden to do directly.” What you “cannot do directly” under the common law is defend property with lethal force. The Bird case is often cited for the long-standing rule that no property is viewed as more valuable than a human life.
That means that Hill can be charged criminally and even sued civilly on these facts if proven.
The one possible defense for Hill could arise if Grayson was near Zaidi and she claimed that she was trying to protect him. They are allowed to pursue Zaidi and seek to recover their property. Reasonable force is allowed in the recovery of chattel. Restatement (Second) of Torts § 218 cmt. e (“sufficient legal protection … of his chattel is afforded by his privilege to use reasonable force to protect his possession against even harmless interference.”). Of course, if a thief resists, such “self-help” measures can change from defense of property to defense of self (which allows greater levels of commensurate force). There is no indication in the news reports that Zaidi was threatening or even near Grayson.
Absent such a defense, Hill would be left with a claim that she did not intend to hit or kill Zaidi. However, police report the couple as just saying that they were tired of being robbed. The statement given to the police could leave only a plea as a viable option.