An annual rafting trip down Missouri’s Meramec River ended with a deadly shooting, after a group of several dozen family members pulled over on a gravel bank to rest. James Crocker, whose house is located up land from the gravel bank, is being charged for killing Paul Dart. In his defense, he is invoking the state’s Castle Doctrine, the law expanded in some states into what is now known as Stand Your Ground, but increasingly robust in its own right.
Dart and his companions had been traveling down the river for several hours before the stop, and two other members of the group needed to relieve themselves. According to local reports, tens of thousands of people come to the region every year to float down the river in rafts, canoes, and kayaks, and property owners along the river become frustrated at regular visitor traffic along the banks by oftentimes rowdy, drinking “floaters.”
According to testimony at a court hearing, Crocker approached the group of floaters accompanying Dart and asked them to leave. Crocker says he did so politely and only became angry once the family started throwing rocks; the family says Crocker initiated the confrontation by yelling and fired two shots in their direction, one of which hit Dart in the face. They disputed that the gravel bank was part of his property, and defended their right to be there.
Crocker is contending that he was defending his property, and as an Associated Press report points out, the case will come down in part to whether the disputed section is actually part of Crocker’s property. When asked if Crocker could have called 911 instead, he said, “I guess I could have, but it’s my property and I was going to protect it.”
Crocker’s attitude exemplifies the concerns about expanded self-defense laws like Stand Your Ground, which prompt some to take justice into their own hands. More than 30 states have some form of self-defense on steroids, many with their own distinct protection for shooters. Missouri’s version of the so-called “Castle Doctrine” allows an individual to use deadly force when someone “unlawfully enters, remains after unlawfully entering, or attempts to unlawfully enter” a home or vehicle. To use deadly force on his own property, Crocker only had to believe the use of force was “necessary to defend” against “the imminent use … of unlawful force.” In fact, Crocker doesn’t even have to prove he reasonably believed that use of force was necessary. The burden is on the prosecutor to prove by the highest standard of “beyond a reasonable doubt” that Crocker was not reasonable.
The Castle Doctrine derives from the old English common law concept that individuals have a right to defend their homes. The original “Castle Doctrine” gave individuals a right to protect their home against intruders, even if that meant using deadly force. Because they were protecting their home, courts carved out an exception to the general rule that individuals protecting themselves must first attempt to mitigate the harm, or “retreat,” so that an individual would not be forced to retreat from their own home. Castle Doctrine provisions became the basis for what are now known as “Stand Your Ground” laws which authorize deadly force in anywhere an individual has a right to be (Missouri has its own version of this, too). But courts and legislatures in many states have also concurrently expanded the conception of the “castle,” to include the “curtilage,” the legal term for property surrounding the home. Of course, it is much easier to accidentally end up on a part of someone’s property that is external to their house without intending to trespass, let alone threaten the individual living there.
The expanded Castle Doctrine has been used to justify a shooting against a burglary of a neighbor’s home, and the fatal shooting of a 20-year-old who walked onto a neighbor’s porch to escape a potential police bust of underaged drinking. And recently, a Virginia woman shot at a car that used her driveway to turn around on the highway — an intrusion she argues is an unlawful entry onto her property.
In arguing he didn’t need to first call 911, Crocker exemplifies the ways in which expanded self-defense doctrines may change behavior. But courts and law enforcement may interpret Missouri’s law more robustly. The local sheriff said Crocker could not invoke the Castle Doctrine defense because he did not fear for his life.