'Stand your ground' law triggers Utah responses

Tuesday , June 02, 2015 - 9:01 AM

Standard-Examiner correspondent

OGDEN – Should you have the right to protect yourself -- with deadly force -- against potential intruders in your home?

Two shooting deaths in two days of May caused Utahns to reflect on self-defense laws in the state.

In both cases the shooters were citizens, not police officers. A bystander shot and killed 26-year-old Taulagi Matafeo during an attempted carjacking in Orem on Saturday, May 2. The following morning 24-year-old Christian Chichia attempted to trespass into a home when the resident/owner shot and killed him.

Shima Baradaran, an associate professor with the University of Utah, is an expert in criminal and constitutional law. She believes in both cases the shootings were justified.

Baradaran describes the carjacking incident as a “case of defense of others.” Self-defense and third party defense laws are the same in Utah. When an individual tries to stop an unlawful act from occurring, the law justifies them in using deadly force when innocent parties are at risk.

“This looks like a standard case of castle doctrine,” Baradaran said, speaking of Chichia’s shooting. “Individuals in the U.S. are absolutely permitted to use deadly force to prevent a home invasion.” She also stated the home owner went above his legal responsibility by talking to the invader to attempt to avoid the shooting.

The stand your ground law refers to citizens’ right to choose not to retreat, but defend themselves from aggression.

Police officers have different standards when it comes to use of deadly force.

“Officers are permitted to use force at times in apprehending felons who are escaping or when their lives are threatened with force,” Baradaran said. She also noted that police “are often given a lot of leeway in interpreting whether their lives or the lives of others are in danger.”

Steven Gunn, a director with the Gun Violence Prevention Center of Utah, said, “That which is legally justified, may more or less, be morally reprehensible.”

Gunn acknowledges he cannot judge based on the two accounts if the shootings were justified, but holds his beliefs that human life is sacred. “I think Utah law should require people to retreat, rather than kill another person,” he said.

Although Gunn admitted it would be tough to criticize them, speaking of the shooters, because “we often act based on instinct in these situations.” He believes the incidents highlight two necessary changes in Utah gun laws: (1) Require a retreat before use of force and (2) improved training for those carrying concealed weapons.

Gunn also believes the public supports a universal background check on all guns sales in Utah. “It’s the legislators that are hesitant to make the change,” Gunn said.

Gary Stephens, a 30-year military veteran from Layton, disagrees. “In both cases you have people breaking the law. If you break the law you serve the penalty,” Stephens said. He sees training requirements and gun registrations as a way to “chip away at the right to bear arms.”

Stephens quoted from The Making of America by W. Cleon Skousen, when he discussed the right to bear arms as “unalienable,” or a God given right. “The right to bear arms is what secures all your other rights,” Stephens said. “If you try to take my rights away, with the second amendment, I can make answer for it.”

Catherine Mortensen, a spokesperson for the National Rifle Association (NRA), explained, “The right to defend yourself is one of the oldest and most widely accepted rights in our common law. So-called Stand Your Ground Laws simply recognize and uphold that fundamental right. They place the law on the side of victims instead of criminals. The NRA will continue to fight for the right of law-abiding citizens to protect themselves and their families.”

The self-defense laws in Utah originate from English common law. The right to bear arms predates America itself. The laws have changed and adapted to societal changes, but the duty to retreat law is not a new idea. The NRA explained the adoption of a duty to retreat appeared in most states in the 1920s. Since then, some states removed the retreat duty in many self-defense situations.

Despite state law and public opinion most agree people react on instinct, not law. Legal aftermath often follows “reasonable standards” to determine if the person used self-defense in a justifiable way.

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