We’ve all heard accounts that horse thieves have, in the past, been sentenced to death by courts in Texas or legally hanged by vigilantes.  The demise of Jake and his compatriots in the movie Lonesome Dove is a depiction of one such vigilante hanging in Texas.  All kidding aside, verifiable accounts of capital punishment for horse theft (both after a trial and by vigilantes) come not only from Texas, but also from other U.S. states and even other from other countries.  

Photo: Per Wikipedia, this photo is of a horse thief’s hanging in Oregon, circa 1900 [Source

According to a BBC news story from May 2011, some folks in Scotland even reenacted the events surrounding the 1811 hanging of a fellow named George Watson for horse theft.  Watson was described in the BBC article as a “tinker-traveller” who made off with a “distinctive grey Clydesdale mare” belonging to a man who offered shelter to Watson and his family.  Watson is alleged to be the last man hanged in Scotland for horse theft.

Urban legend has it that horse thieves can still be hanged or sentenced to death in Texas.  But unfortunately for those who still wish to see horse thieves put to death, horse thievery is no longer a capital felony in Texas.  Under Texas Penal Code Section 31.03(e), horse theft is a third-degree felony (2 to 10 years in prison) if the value of the horses stolen in a single transaction is less than $100,000.  Horse theft in Texas is punishable as a second degree felony (2 to 20 years in prison) if the horses stolen in a single transaction are worth $100,000 to $199,999, and a first degree felony (5 to 99 years in prison) if the horses stolen in a single transaction are worth $200,000 or more.  See also Chapter 12 of the Texas Penal Code

Pursuant to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2008 opinion in Kennedy v. Louisiana, the power of any U.S. state to impose the death penalty against an individual for committing a crime that did not result in the death of a human victim is now limited to crimes against the state (i.e., espionage, treason).

But vigilante justice for horse thieves is not completely dead in Texas.  As discussed previously, there are still circumstances under which a person in Texas could legally shoot or otherwise kill a horse thief if the person, for example, is a witness to horse theft in progress and the circumstances warrant the use of lethal force.  See these prior posts:

When is it Legal to Shoot a Trespasser?

How to Deal With Trespassers on Your Property

Facts revealed in the recent Jaci Rae Jackson case may cause some to wish capital punishment were still available for horse theft.  As you have probably read by now, Jackson is a now 19 year-old Southern Arkansas University student who was charged this week with a number of felonies in Arkansas and Oklahoma for the theft of 5 college rodeo horses and a horse trailer.  Jackson cannot (if convicted) be sentenced to death for her actions.  Ms. Jackson has also been charged with related post-theft crimes which, according to reports, include allegedly participating in the killing and dismemberment of one stolen horse, and tying the 4 others to trees without sufficient food or water.  Ms. Jackson’s arraignment is expected to occur on December 15, 2011.

Photo: Jaci Rae Jackson [Source

Apropos, how can we all take steps to prevent the theft of our horses and trailers and make sure thieves are brought to justice?  Dr. Pete Gibbs, Texas A & M University professor and Extension Horse Specialist, published an informative article entitled “15 Steps to Minimizing Theft of Horses and Equipment”, which can be downloaded here.  

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

Landowners who run horse businesses on their land often run into situations in which an unwelcome person attempts to come onto their property.  Sometimes the unwelcome party is someone who once boarded their horse with the property owner, but no longer has a business relationship with the property owner.  In other instances, the trespasser may include a current boarder who has stopped paying the property owner the agreed amount, but still comes out to enjoy the facility as well as their horse without also bringing payment.

Except in special circumstances (mineral exploration, freshwater lakes and streams, easements, beaches, cemeteries) land owners do not have a legal obligation to let uninvited parties onto their land if it is privately-owned.  In other words, the fact that a land owner is running an equine-related business on their land does not give uninvited or unauthorized persons the right to access the private land.  Under Section 30.05 of the Texas Penal Code, a person commits criminal trespass if "he enters or remains on or in property of another without effective consent and he 1) had notice that the entry was forbidden; or 2) received notice to depart but failed to do so."

Below are some steps landowners can take to protect their property from trespassers before a trespass occurs:

1) Post a Sign on Your Property – In addition to the posted sign bearing the Chapter 87 equine liability statute, landowners should also post a "Private Property–No Trespassing" sign at a conspicuous place near the entrance of their property. 

2) Immediately Notify A Former Guest That They Are No Longer Welcome – If someone who used to have permission to access your land is no longer welcome, give them notice, either orally or in writing, that they are no longer welcome on your property and if they attempt to access your property (other than to pay you and take their horse, if money is owed), you will call the sheriff.

3)  Include a Trespass Provision in Your Contracts – If you require people who access your land to sign contracts, include a provision in the contract that your land is private property and you reserve the right to deny them and their guests access if they breach the contract, even if their horse, tack, or other belongings remain on your property;

4)  Secure the Property – If you know a trespass is imminent, lock the gate or take other measures to prevent entry upon the land.  Call the sheriff or local police if you’re in the city limits and let them know a trespasser is trying to get onto your property.

If, despite these efforts, someone trespasses on your property, the best thing to do is to call the sheriff and let them handle the trespasser.  If for some reason you cannot have law enforcement intervene, Texas law (Section 9.41 of the Texas Penal Code) allows you to use "reasonable force" to protect your property.  Reasonable force includes any force that is not potentially lethal.  This would probably include physically blocking the trespasser’s entry onto the land and perhaps even showing the trespasser that you have a gun and are prepared to use it if warranted.  However, as discussed below, an actual discharge of a firearm, unless clearly not aimed anywhere towards the trespasser, may expose the land owner to unwanted scrutiny by law enforcement.

When is a landowner allowed to shoot at a trespasser?  According to Section 9.42 of the Texas Penal Code, a landowner can shoot at or use other deadly force against a trespasser if the landowner reasonably believes the land or property cannot be protected or recovered by any other means, or that the landowner himself would be exposed to substantial risk of death or serious bodily injury if the landowner does not use deadly force. A landowner can also shoot at or use other deadly force against a trespasser if the force is immediately necessary to prevent the trespasser’s imminent commission of arson, burglary, robbery, aggravated robbery, theft during the nighttime or criminal mischief during the nighttime; or to prevent the trespasser who is fleeing immediately after committing one of those acts from escaping with the property.  "Criminal mischief" includes "knowingly or intentionally damaging or destroying, tampering with or marking, inscribing slogans, drawing or painting on tangible property " of the property owner. 

Using potentially dangerous measures to protect your property is not recommended in all cases, as it can expose a property owner to possible physical harm and also criminal prosecution if too much force is used.  However, property owners should be aware of, and exercise, their right to protect their property under the proper circumstances.