When is it Legal to Shoot a Trespasser?

Surprisingly, my 2008 post entitled How to Deal With Trespassers on Your Property has returned more hits than virtually any other single post on the Equine Law Blog. The search terms that usually land people on that post are some variation of “when is it legal for me to shoot a trespasser?” or “shoot + trespasser + [name of state]”.

Looking at the almost daily searches about shooting trespassers that keep landing people on the Equine Law Blog, it would seem that we have a real issue in this country with trespassers. It would also seem that landowners do not feel that dialing 9-1-1 is going to solve the problem. 

Last weekend's bizarre horse-stabbing case from Pine Grove, California perhaps illustrates the trespassing problem. According to news reports, a man named Gaylord Neil Story, 59, trespassed onto his neighbor’s property, appeared at her door covered in blood, attempted to force his way into her home, chased her through a pasture, rummaged through her vehicle, and stabbed her 14 year-old Quarter Horse gelding. 

But this victim never shot at Story. Instead, she fled her residence and called 9-1-1. Sheriffs’ deputies arrived 12 minutes after the call.

At some point after sheriffs’ deputies arrived at the scene, Gaylord Story brandished a large butcher knife and advanced towards the officers. Deputies opened fire on Story in self defense. Story, who was struck by four rounds (two rounds each from two officers), was dead when medical personnel arrived. However, an autopsy also revealed several self-inflicted stab wounds, one of which would have been fatal.

Luckily, the victim was not injured. The horse was severely injured as a result of the stab wounds, but is expected to make a full recovery.

Reports indicate that the deputies who shot Story have been placed on administrative leave pending an investigation by the California Department of Justice. 

All of this raises some questions: 1) is the trespassing problem increasing because trespassers are no longer afraid of being shot at by landowners? 2) if even the sheriff’s deputies are being investigated for shooting Story (who would have probably died anyway due to self-inflicted stab wounds), what does this mean for landowners?

This prior post contains a summary when it’s permissible under Texas law to use deadly force against a trespasser.  My dad, a native Texan, always says, "I'd rather be judged by 12 than carried by 6."  Texas law basically says that If you reasonably believe you'll be "carried by 6" (i.e. dead) if you don't shoot, you're probably justified in shooting.

The facts surrounding the Story case seem to fit the bill of a case where the victim landowner could have legally opened fire on a trespasser (at least if the incident had occurred in Texas). But unfortunately for landowners, they probably subject themselves to an investigation (and possibly even a trial) if they choose to shoot a trespasser (no matter the circumstances). And would-be trespassers probably know this.

Disclaimer: I don’t specialize in criminal law…so don’t go shootin’ somebody based solely upon something you read on the Equine Law Blog!

Follow me on Twitter @alisonmrowe

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big john - October 30, 2011 8:01 AM

if you feel that you have to run from the safety of your own house .open fire.thats the way i feel anyway.like my cusin posted at his shop.if you are found here at night you will be found here in the morning.

Ellen - August 28, 2012 11:51 AM

I think she did the right thing. Something was seriously wrong with that man. According to the police report he crashed through her window onto her couch, cutting himself further and then rampaged through her house. Of course she could have shot him then. I think he must have been on something. People have been shot and kept coming. A guy who stabbed himself multiple times is obviously out of his mind.

If possible, let the police do it. But in California, a policeman told me, "If you shoot someone on your property, pull them inside the house, and don't make it obvious."

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