We had a very good discussion in the last thread, where I responded to Jeff Soyer’s piece on castle doctrine. I wanted to continue with some further thoughts. One thing I don’t want to be misunderstood about is that I do not think it is immoral, nor is it illegal, to use physical force to protect or recover property. Pennsylvania law recognizes this. Pennsylvania law basically stipulates that you may use as much physical force as you require to recover or protect your property, or to remove a trespasser, but you may not use deadly force to do this. Even Texas law doesn’t give you as much leeway as many people believe. Under the Texas Penal Code Title 2, Chapter 9, Sec 42:
A person is justified in using deadly force against another to protect land or tangible, movable property:
(1) if he would be justified in using force against the other under Section 9.41; and
(2) when and to the degree he reasonably believes the deadly force is immediately necessary:
(A) to prevent the other’s imminent commission of arson, burglary, robbery, aggravated robbery, theft during the nighttime, or criminal mischief during the nighttime; or
(B) to prevent the other who is fleeing immediately after committing burglary, robbery, aggravated robbery, or theft during the nighttime from escaping with the property; and
(3) he reasonably believes that:
(A) the land or property cannot be protected or recovered by any other means; or
(B) the use of force other than deadly force to protect or recover the land or property would expose the actor or another to a substantial risk of death or serious bodily injury.
Texas allows probably as much leeway in defense of property as any state, but it still limits the circumstances under which it can be used, which is why most Texas lawyers advise against using deadly force to protect property.
But physical force can be hazardous, because it requires close contact with a criminal. Several people suggested getting into a tuffle with a criminal is a bad idea, and I agree with that, which I why I suggested that job is best left to the police. That doesn’t mean I think it’s immoral to use physical force against a thief, quite the contrary, I think society should encourage that. But I stand by my belief that using deadly force to prevent petty theft is immoral, because you’re ending a person’s life over someone stealing a small piece of yours. Even if physical force is a risk, consider that if you were to have a police officer handy, he would use physical force to recover your property and take the offender into custody. I don’t consider is proper to ask someone else to put himself at risk on your behalf, when you would not be willing to do so yourself in his absence. That doesn’t mean I think one is obligated to chase down and recover the property yourself, but if the property means that much to you, I think you’re obligated to behave the same way a police officer would, under the same circumstances (in return, I think the state is obligated to give you the same benefit of doubt they’d afford a police officer in handling the situation).
Others suggested that there’s not much other recourse when the police won’t do anything about petty crime. I don’t believe that citizens should do nothing in these circumstances, but I do believe that they must act within the law. The law allows actions, including physical force, to be taken to recover or protect property; to undo the wrong that was done to you, or prevent the wrong in the first place. It does not allow you to seek retribution. That is something only the state may do. While I very much believe in citizen action to prevent crime, I do believe the state needs to have a monopoly on retribution for crimes. To that end, I believe it’s morally and legally wrong to use deadly force to protect property, when lesser force will do. Deadly force is for protecting life and limb, which I think everyone needs to be prepared to do. But I also believe in being prepared to use physical force. Whether that’s carrying OC spray, taking a martial art, or what have you.
I will never speak against citizens acting within the law to protect their own persons, property, and interests, but I’m not ever going to become an advocate for vigilantism.
UPDATE: Ahab has more.