Legalese — You Can’t Shoot a Thief

Walton County Sheriff’s Office Shooting range. Photo credit: Sharon Swanepoel

There was a headline recently that indicated that it was not ok to shoot someone who was stealing packages off your front porch.  This headline provoked a lively debate on social media about self-defense, defense of property, and stand your ground laws.  The debating parties were debating the state of the law, but the law is, actually pretty clear.

The law in Georgia states in O.C.G.A. 16-3-21(a) “A person is justified in threatening or using force against another when and to the extent that he or she reasonably believes that such threat or force is necessary to defend himself or herself or a third person against such  other’s imminent use of unlawful force; however…a person is justified in using force which is intended or likely to cause death or great bodily harm only if he or she reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent death or great bodily injury to himself or herself or a third person or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.”

I think we can all agree that shooting a gun is “force which is intended or likely to cause death or great bodily harm.”  Therefore, you can only use a gun if you are preventing death or great bodily harm or a forcible felony.  A forcible felony is any felony “which involves the use or threat of physical force or violence against any person…” O.C.G.A. 16-1-3.  Stealing is not a forcible felony.  So if you shoot someone who is stealing something off of your front porch, you are guilty of a forcible felony, but the thief is not.

“But,” some of the commenters on social media would say, “What about the laws that talk about defense of your house?  Can’t you shoot someone who breaks into your property?”

Well, yes and no.  You can only use deadly force if the entry is made in a “violent and tumultuous manner” AND you “reasonably believe[ ] that the entry is attempted or made for the purpose of assaulting or offering personal violence to any person dwelling or being therein.”  OR, you can use the force against someone who isn’t a member of the household who has forcibly entered the household and you had reason to believe there was a forcible entry OR you reasonably believed that the person who is coming into your house is going to commit a felony AND the force is necessary to prevent the felony.  Stealing from your front porch is not entering your house, forcibly or otherwise.

There is another law that talks about using force to defend property other than your house, but you can only use force “intended or likely to cause death or great bodily harm” if it is necessary to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.  Again, theft is not a forcible felony.

Self-defense comes down to the word “defense.”  You can defend yourself and your property with as much force as is necessary to defend yourself and your property, but no more.  You cannot take revenge or exact justice on the wrongdoer.  It is not your job to punish the thief: that is the job of law enforcement.  It is against the law for you to exert more force than is necessary.  You can grab the package back from the package thief, you can shove him away from your package, but you cannot shoot a gun at him.  When you do, you have raised the stakes and you become the aggressor according to the law.

Nothing in this article should be construed as legal advice.  It is being offered for informational purposes only.  

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply