Prosecutors, police cautious on defining legal use of force

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by ELISA HAHN / KING 5 News

Bio | Email | Follow: @ElisaHahnK5

KING5.com

Posted on April 5, 2012 at 4:51 PM

Updated Thursday, Apr 5 at 4:51 PM

Pierce County prosecutor Mark Lindquist on Thursday said Washington residents have the right to use deadly force to protect themselves or their property in their homes -- up to a point.

"Prosecutors are going to look at things like degree of danger, where the shooting takes place, and who the players are," said Lindquist. "I can tell you this though: In Washington, we are a 'no duty to retreat' state, so you have a right to stand your ground."

But shooting a fleeing suspect who no longer poses a threat could get you in trouble, Lindquist said.

Lindquist's comments came on the same day that two county residents confronted people trying to enter their homes -- one in Gig Harbor, the other in Bonney Lake. It also came one day after a retired police officer used a firearm to defend his home from intruders in Puyallup, an incident that resulted in the death of one person.

Prosecutors and law enforcement officials alike offer carefully worded advice to the public about legal use of force.

As stated in a legal manual published by the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, "The right to use deadly force in self-defense is founded upon the existence of necessity. The evidence must establish confrontation or conflict, not instigated or provoked by the defendant, which would induce a reasonable person, considering all the facts and circumstances known to the defendant, to believe that there was imminent danger of great bodily harm about to be inflicted."

The Lewis County Sheriff's Department went so far as to post a Q&A on the topic on its website. One portion reads:

Q: What determines if I am charged with a crime after a use of deadly force?
A: When determining if an act is a justifiable or an excusable homicide, the totality of the circumstances is reviewed using a “reasonable person standard.”

If the actions are found reasonable, no charges are pursued. If the act is unlawful, or there is ambiguity, charges may be pursued. In cases of ambiguity, it may be necessary for a jury of the person’s peers to determine the reasonableness of their actions.

The specific Washington law governing legal use of force is Chapter 9A.16. It says it is legal, "Whenever used by a party about to be injured, or by another lawfully aiding him or her, in preventing or attempting to prevent an offense against his or her person, or a malicious trespass, or other malicious interference with real or personal property lawfully in his or her possession, in case the force is not more than is necessary."

It further states it is legal, "Whenever reasonably used by a person to detain someone who enters or remains unlawfully in a building or on real property lawfully in the possession of such person, so long as such detention is reasonable in duration and manner to investigate the reason for the detained person's presence on the premises, and so long as the premises in question did not reasonably appear to be intended to be open to members of the public."

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