WV Civil Rights Lawyer

Police Misconduct, Civil Rights Law

WV gun owner stops home invasion. When can you legally shoot someone?

There was an article yesterday in the Charleston Gazette about a gun owner in Logan, WV who stopped a home invasion in progress at his neighbor’s home.

He shot one of the burglars, and held the other at gunpoint until police arrived.  This brings up a common topic of interest to people – especially in West Virginia, which has one of the largest percentages of gun owners per capita (we are no. 5 I believe).

When can you legally shoot someone in a home invasion scenario?  

In the end, it comes down to whether or not you reasonably believe that you, or someone else (anyone else – it doesn’t have to be a family member) is in imminent danger of death or serious bodily harm.  People tend to get obsessed with the “castle doctrine.”  Just understand that to mean, that if you are in your home, you have no legal obligation to run out the back door, if given the opportunity.  It all comes down to whether you believe you, or someone else, is going to be killed or seriously hurt if you don’t take action.

There is no guarantee that, even if you do believe you’re about to be killed, and you fire your weapon, that the shooting will be deemed justified.  Your fear must have been reasonable – based on something that your peers would likely also consider as significant enough to cause them fear as well.

Everyone should think about these types of things ahead of time.  You should draw a mental line in the sand regarding when you shoot, and when you do not shoot.  What is enough?  What if someone in a ski mask is lurking outside your house?  What if someone in a ski mask is outside your house with a gun in their hand?  What if someone is burglarizing your vehicle in your driveway?  What if someone is burglarizing your neighbor’s home?  Or car?

There is not necessarily a right answer for these types of scenarios.  But you should never pull the trigger unless you really do fear for a life.  It’s not that they don’t deserve a dirt nap.  If it were up to me, all thieves entering your property at night should be executed.  But unfortunately it’s not.

Many people in West Virginia do believe that if someone is breaking into their car at night, that they can run outside and shoot them.  Unfortunately, here we are not allowed to use deadly force in order to protect property.  For this reason, electric companies are not supposed to keep lines active for the sole purpose of deterring trespassers.  Now if the car burglar approaches you, or if he has a weapon and has the imminent ability to use it against you – that is different.

1.  It’s always going to be more difficult to justify a shooting where the person shot was “unarmed”.  I knife, gun, or even a stick could count as a weapon.  It is never a good idea to provide your own weapon after the shooting.  The facts are what they are.  Never try to change them.

2.  It’s always going to be more difficult to justify a shooting where the person shot was shot in the back.  This would indicate that the person was walking, or running, away from you.  That causes a problem because at that point it’s hard to argue that your fear was reasonable when the threat was leaving.  It’s also hard to argue that the threat was imminent.  But, if the person shot was in your house, it’s probably going to be a good shoot, because the threat was still in your home.  Generally when we shoot someone, our natural tendency is to keep shooting.  So there have been cases where the first shot was in the front of the person’s body, and several more shots went into the guy’s back as he turned to run away.  Good shoot, but bullets in the back are always going to make things more difficult.

3.  In your home, it’s game on.  Like I said, draw a line in the sand.  If someone maliciously invades your home, you generally can eliminate the threat with extreme prejudice.  But it still has to be reasonable.  You wouldn’t want to shoot a drunk neighbor who wandered in the wrong house – or a family member sneaking back in from a night of partying.  For this reason, always have a good home defense light.  You have to know your target – and what’s behind it.

It’s outside the home, where most of the grey areas live.  So be very careful venturing outside your castle with a gun in the dark of night.  Know where your line in the sand is.

As for the shooting in the article, the 800 pound gorilla is the fact that was left out of the story.  Did the shooter believe that the neighbors were in the home at the time he saw the attempted home invasion?  If so, good shoot.  If not, he may have a more difficult time due to the fact that we are not allowed to use deadly force in order to protect (only) property.

4.  Lastly, all gun owners who anticipate ever having to use their firearms in self defense should get some formal training, such as in a defensive handgun class.  A basic concealed weapons class does not qualify as training.  This is me at a handgun class a couple of weeks ago.  It’s a lot of fun, and it’s part of our obligation as citizens under the 2nd Amendment.

2013-12-15 14.45.47 copy

December 23, 2013 Posted by | Burglary, Concealed Weapons, Murder, Negligent Homicide, Robbery, Self Defense, West Virginia Concealed Carry Laws, West Virginia Gun Laws | Leave a comment

Kanawha County Mother Charged in 1-Year-Old’s Death – Police Should Tread Carefully

A story in the Charleston Daily Mail today reported that a Kanawha County mother was charged criminally with the death of her 22 month-old son.

Elizabeth Dawn Thornton, 21, was arraigned in Kanawha Magistrate Court in connection with the death of Constantine Alexander Washburn, known as Alex.

Lt. Sean Crosier, of the Kanawha County Sheriff’s Department, said the infant died May 31 as a result of injuries received May 26 in his Cross Lanes home. Crosier said the boy’s severe brain injuries and other injuries would have required immediate medical attention, but that Thornton did not seek help until a friend called an ambulance on May 29.

Crosier said authorities waited several days before charging Thornton. “This is a very, very serious allegation and we wanted to make sure everything was right,” he said. He said authorities are still questioning other family members, including the boy’s father, 31-year-old Christopher Washburn.

Police believe the elder Washburn may have been present when the boy was injured. Crosier did not know if other charges are pending.

According to the criminal complaint, both parents told police Alex Washburn bumped his head on a table and hit his chin on a toilet. But doctors said the boy’s severe brain injuries and bruising on his neck did not support their stories.

As a criminal defense attorney, this is the most upsetting type of case, because babies are innocent 100% of the time and have been robbed of their life. Secondly, there are many types of accidental situations that could be construed to be child abuse or neglect, resulting in essentially murder charges against parents who have suffered a great tragedy.

In these types of cases, there is a very fine line between parents who deserve to rot in prison, and parents who are either innocent, or unintentionally harmed their child. What separates the two? The medical examiner who performed the autopsy. The ME will come up with some reason why the injuries do not corroborate the parent(s) version of what happened. Therein lies the problem: what happens when two doctors disagree on the autopsy results and their necessary conclusions? You have a situation where two doctors testify against each other for opposing parties in a court room. But this is not a civil case, this is a criminal case, with everything at stake, not just money.

Case in point: I had a similar case where a 6-month-old child died tragically. The autopsy was performed and it was ruled SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome) by the ME. Law enforcement thought something was fishy, and they didn’t like the ME’s conclusion, so the ME was fired, and a new ME was brought in to take a second look. Guess what? The second ME ruled the death a homicide, based on the conclusion that blood in some cavity of the body meant it must have been murder, or that someone was lying. So the investigators leak the story to the newspapers and start interrogating the parents.

So what happened? After being devastated by the death of their infant, the parents were already at the end of their rope. Within months, both parents committed suicide. Tragically, an entire family disappeared from the world.

The point is, that investigators better make damn sure they know what they are talking about, and the parents better run – not walk – to an independent physician to review the ME’s findings.

Read the full article here.

– John H. Bryan, West Virginia Attorney.

June 6, 2008 Posted by | Children, Medical Examiners, Murder, Negligent Homicide | Leave a comment

Wrongful Death Suit Filed Against Raleigh County Sheriff and Deputies

From the Register-Herald this morning:

A wrongful death lawsuit filed late Monday afternoon claims members of the Raleigh County Sheriff’s Department acted negligently when they shot and killed a Cabell Heights man who was firing a high-powered weapon in the early morning hours of July 4, 2006.

Filed by Charleston attorneys Michael A. Olivio and Travis A. Griffith on behalf of Mary Webb, the widow of Robert Webb, the suit lists defendants as the Raleigh County Sheriff’s Department, the Raleigh County Commission, Sheriff Danny Moore, then-Chief Deputy Steve Tanner, Deputy Greg S. Kade and Deputy John E. Hajash.

According to Register-Herald files and the complaint, Kade and Hajash were responding to a complaint that Robert A. Webb, 44, was playing loud music and shooting an AK-47 assault rifle outside his Cabell Heights home.

According to the lawsuit, Webb was discharging his firearm in celebration of his birthday and the Fourth of July holiday, but more than 30 minutes had elapsed between the firing of the weapon and the arrival of Kade and Hajash at the Webb residence.

The suit also claims “numerous residents within the neighborhood” were also firing weapons in celebration of the holiday and that Webb never fired his gun to threaten or endanger anyone.

The complaint claims Kade and Hajash parked away from the residence, out of sight, and approached on foot “while using cover to conceal their presence.” It also claims Kade took an assault shotgun from their patrol vehicle instead of his service standard handgun in spite of the fact the call was considered a “non-emergency nuisance call.”

When the deputies arrived on the scene at approximately 1 a.m., Webb was not shooting; still Kade and Hajash remained concealed by a row of trees until they witnessed Webb turn away from them, “at which time they ran toward Robert Webb in order to close the distance between them,” according to the complaint.

“Deputies Kade and Hajash proceeded up the street toward Mr. Webb and shot Mr. Webb while he was standing in the driveway of his home,” the complaint reads. “Deputies Kade and Hajash failed to identify themselves as law enforcement officers prior to firing their fatal shots at Mr. Webb.”

Webb was hit in the head and knocked to the ground by an initial shot from a shotgun, according to the complaint. While he was on the ground, one of the deputies shot him again with a handgun.

The complaint also claims emergency medical personnel were denied immediate access to Webb by members of the Raleigh County Sheriff’s Department, who finished taking photographs before they allowed medical personnel to touch Webb.

Obviously there are two sides to every story, but if the allegations that are included in the complaint are true, then there were some real problems with the conduct of the law enforcement officers in this situation. Having formerly investigated pattern or practice police misconduct for the Department of Justice, the way these officers approached the scene jumps out at me as either gross negligence or reckless disregard for human life and proper police practices. First of all, shooting firearms into the air on the 4th of July is not an offense punishable by death. They should have approached in their cruisers with their emergency lights on. There was no allegation (apparently) that the victim was firing his weapon towards anyone else. It was obviously a 4th of July celebration. Secondly, the man was in his driveway, it was dark, and they sneaked up on him with a shotgun pointed at his face. It would have been understandable if the victim had shot at the officers. However, he did not – there apparently was no evidence that he attempted to shoot at them. It is uncontested that the victim never fired a shot. Having your head blown-off by a short-barrel shotgun is a pretty harsh way to die, and understandably, the family is looking to make the county pay.

Read the full article here.

– John H. Bryan, West Virginia Attorney.

May 6, 2008 Posted by | Civil Liability, Lawsuits, Negligent Homicide, Police, Police Misconduct | Leave a comment

Charges Expected in Kanawha County Hunting Death

From the Charleston Gazette today:

Charges are expected to be filed against 19-year-old Andrew S. Hardin, of St. Albans, who allegedly shot and killed Nicholas Lee Caldwell while hunting turkey on Tuesday, state Division of Natural Resources investigators said.

Caldwell, 16, was in a wooded area off Kanawha Street near St. Albans when he was hit by shotgun pellets at about 8:30 a.m., said Hoy Murphy, spokesman for the DNR, which is investigating the incident.

People near the scene told investigators they saw 19-year-old Andrew S. Hardin, of St. Albans, hunting in the area. In an interview with officers, he later confessed he was the shooter, DNR officials said.

As in many other cases, usually the cover-up is more serious than the original crime. What if the victim was alive after the shooting and the shooter left him to die? In that case, he should face murder charges. The autopsy, which will almost positively take place, should indicate whether or not it was an immediate death.

The victim was hunting on private land near his home and he had permission to be hunting there. The shooter however, at least according to the article, appears not to have had permission to be hunting on this land. This is absolutely disgusting to me. As an avid turkey hunter, I have hunted around many other people, and almost every single one of them takes the proper safety precautions. Anyone who can’t tell the difference between a turkey and a hunter ought not to be in the woods in the first place. Furthermore, since this person was likely trespassing, he ought to go to prison for this.

You can read the entire article here.

– John H. Bryan, West Virginia Attorney.

May 1, 2008 Posted by | Civil Liability, Murder, Negligent Homicide, Wildlife Violations | Leave a comment