Case Of The Week with Andrew Branca-“A Self-Defense Cascade of Failure”
Case of the Week: July 18, 2018
“A Self-Defense Cascade of Failure”
I’m often asked to describe the most common way people screw up their self-defense claim. The truth is there isn’t a single most common way. People manage to find an apparently infinite number of ways to step outside the bounds of the law. Often, there were a bunch of exits off that jail-bound freeway that they could have taken, but didn’t.
For most normally law-abiding people this is not done out of malice, but ignorance. I mean ignorance not in a derogatory sense, but in a technical sense–they didn’t know where the legal boundaries were, and stepped over them without even knowing it.
“I can’t believe I got arrested for self-defense!”
In their minds they acted lawfully. “I can’t believe I’m being prosecuted for self-defense,” may be amongst the most common statements I hear from clients.
Indeed, it’s not unusual to see a defendant fail not from a single error, but from a cascade of errors, each building atop the mistakes already made.
A good example of this kind of cascade occurred in a case out of Virginia. The case ended in some social media outrage when the “defender” was compelled to take a misdemeanor plea deal after using a gun to fight off a pair of home invaders. (Source: Prosecutor responds to article, outcry about sentencing of man who shot intruder.)
Stated in that fashion, this certainly seems outrageously unjust. Perhaps not surprisingly, however, the actual facts of the case shed light on why a misdemeanor was not as unreasonable as it might first appear.
Defender Drives Off Two Burglars and HE Is Convicted!
The facts viewed in the light most favorable to the “defender” are as follows: 35-year-old William Andrew Sheets was in his backyard when he saw two strangers enter his home from the front door. His home had just recently been burglarized, and Sheets decided to intervene and stop what appeared to be yet another burglary.
Sheets, who was armed with a handgun, entered the home through the back door and confronted the two burglars, resulting in a fight with one of them. The burglar was subsequently shot in the face by Sheets and then was shot twice more. Both burglars were ultimately arrested, charged, and convicted of felony burglary.
A Cascade of “Self-Defense” Failure
So, how did the “defender” end up getting charged and taking a plea deal requiring 30 days in jail, two years of supervised release, and five years loss of his gun rights? Well, for several reasons.
First Error: It Wasn’t Sheets’ Current Home
First, the “home” in question was not actually Sheets’ home, at least not any longer. Although he had previously lived in the house, he had since moved to a new residence. He had, however, also left some of his personal property behind, planning to pick it up at a later date.
It was during this delay that the previous residence was burglarized and some of his property was stolen. Reasonably enough, Sheets reported the burglary to the police, but because he was unsatisfied with the police response he made another in a cascade of errors.
Second Error: Defender Sets Up an Ambush
That second error was to decide to take the law into his own hands, by arming himself and setting up a tent in the backyard of his former residence, in the expectation that the burglar would return to steal more stuff.
Third Error: Confronts Rather Than Calls Police
When he observed two men entering the home, presumably to burglarize it again, instead of calling the police to report a burglary in progress Sheets decided to enter the house—which, remember, is not his home—and confront them with a firearm.
When he did so he ended up in a physical confrontation with one of the burglars, shooting that burglar in the face. Incidentally, Sheets would later concede that he knew neither of the men was armed. The two burglars then fled from the house. Folks, remember, when you go to the fight, rather than the fight coming to you, that’s not going to look much like self-defense to a lot of people.
Fourth Error: Pursues the Fleeing Burglars
His fourth error was to then pursue the fleeing burglars out of the home and to their vehicle, continuing to fire at them as they ran, shooting one of the burglars twice in the buttocks. Incidentally, these rounds are flying around a residential neighborhood. Pro-tip: if you’re pursuing, you make it pretty easy for a prosecutor to argue that even if the person you’re chasing initiated the confrontation, you’ve now become the active aggressor in a second fight.
Fifth Error: Fires Into Burglars’ Fleeing Vehicle
But he didn’t stop there. His final error occurred after the two burglars were in their vehicle and driving away. Sheets ran up to the car and fired two shots into the vehicle. There may be circumstances where it’s allowed to shoot into another guy’s vehicle—if he’s using it as a weapon to drive over you, for example, or he’s shooting at you from within the vehicle—but when the other guy is using the car to escape from you, that’s not one of them.
And Defender Still Thinks He Acted Lawfully
As is often the case in these kinds of use-of-force encounters gone wrong, Sheets continues to have a genuine, good faith belief that his conduct was lawful. As the news article reports, “During his sentencing, Sheets reiterated that he did not believe what he did was wrong and was outwardly angry at the prospect of incarceration.” In truth he’s lucky to get a misdemeanor plea deal. In many jurisdictions an attempted murder or felony aggravated assault charge would not have been out of the question.
–Attorney Andrew F. Branca, Law of Self Defense LLC
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