In Missouri, the crime of tampering with a motor vehicle currently is a Class C felony, carrying a sentence of three to 10 years in prison, though it’s often pleaded down to much less. This is only true if you’re caught by the law. If you’re caught by the vehicle’s owner, you could get the death penalty, imposed summarily without benefit of judge or jury.
Missouri’s “castle doctrine” law, first passed in 2007 and significantly broadened this year, gives citizens the right to use deadly force to defend their homes and vehicles from what “he or she reasonably believes to be the use or imminent use of unlawful force by such other person.”
But in several recent cases in the region, gun-wielding Missourians are interpreting the law to mean they can shoot at people tampering with vehicles. At least five people have been shot, four fatally, by property owners citing the castle doctrine. In most of those cases, the victims were not armed nor did they appear to present any imminent threat to the property owners.
Yes, the victims were alleged to be tampering with or attempting to steal a car. But this is not the Old West, when horse thieves could be strung up from the nearest tree. The castle doctrine requires at least a legitimately perceived threat of imminent physical harm.
St. Charles County Prosecuting Attorney Tim Lohmar made that clear last Wednesday when he announced charges against Charles Lewis Flagg III, 39, of Lake Saint Louis in the Nov. 4 shooting death of Shaun T. Jimenez. Lohmar said he probably would let a grand jury decide between a second-degree murder charge or one of involuntary manslaughter.
“The takeaway from this case . is if you’re going to have the privilege of being a gun owner — which you do, very much so, in this state — you also have the responsibility of knowing what the rules are,” Lohmar said. “We cannot allow this to turn into the Wild West.”
Jimenez was not armed and was attempting to flee from Flagg when he was shot. In a similar case in St. Louis in February, Anthony J. Coleman, 22, was charged with shooting and wounding a man driving away in Coleman’s rental car.
But in St. Louis Circuit Court last week, Lervurance McDade, 61, was sentenced only for being a felon in possession of a weapon in a case stemming from the fatal shooting of 13-year-old Martinez Smith-Payne last November. He got a probated sentence of three years.
McDade had told police he spotted the victim and two other boys prowling through his car. Police said he was 70 feet away from the car when he began shooting. But Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce, saying the castle doctrine law was complicated and that the circumstances were unclear, declined to file homicide charges.
The only recent case in which an armed threat took place occurred in the Bevo neighborhood on Nov. 1. There a homeowner killed two armed men he said had entered his garage to steal his truck. He told police one of the men placed a gun to his head before he took his own weapon from a pocket and shot them both. The unnamed homeowner said he was “devastated” by the incident.
Given the proliferation of guns in Missouri, there will be more of these cases. They place prosecutors in tight spots. There should be no sympathy for car thieves, but it’s not a capital offense.
If the state hadn’t done away with mandatory training to carry a weapon, we’d suggest more emphasis on gun owners’ obligations to understand the limitations of the law and the importance of calibrated use of force to match the actual threat — as opposed to the desire to administer justice on the spot.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch