Stronger self-defense law backed
By JOHN MORITZ
STAR-TELEGRAM AUSTIN BUREAU
AUSTIN -- A coalition of state lawmakers that cuts across party lines wants to remove any doubt that Texans have the right to respond with force to protect their homes and belongings from unlawful intruders.
To that end, state Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio, filed legislation Wednesday that would update the so-called Castle Doctrine to make it clear that a property owner had no "duty to retreat" before firing on or otherwise stopping the intrusion or attack. And 27 of his 31 Senate colleagues have signed on as co-sponsors to Senate Bill 378.
"I believe Texans who are attacked in their homes, their businesses, their vehicles or anywhere else they have a right to be should have the right to defend themselves from attack without fear of being prosecuted criminally," Wentworth said. In addition, he added, if the wounded intruder files a civil lawsuit against the property owner and loses, the intruder would pay all court costs under the bill.
Wentworth and others acknowledged that Texas has long tracked the custom dating back to English common law stating that a person has the right to defend his or her castle. But the Texas law is not as far-reaching as some might realize.
"Current Texas law effectively imposes a duty to attempt to retreat before using force against an intruder," Wentworth said. "Texans who do not attempt to escape before using force to protect their homes, their businesses or their vehicles may be criminally prosecuted and face possible civil suits alleging wrongful injury or death."
His measure would carry the presumption that the property owner was acting with justification rather than forcing the property owner to prove that the action was appropriate. So far, 15 other states have enacted similar legislation.
A nearly identical measure in the Texas House has gained the support of 100 of the 150 members.
"This legislation puts criminals on notice. If you break into someone's home in Texas, you enter at your own risk," said state Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Lewisville, one of the co-sponsors.
Crime victims rights groups and the National Rifle Association have expressed support for the measure, saying it would tag the intruder as the sole criminal in such matters and not the property owner.
"It is fundamental that honest, law-abiding citizens know the law is on their side if they are ever faced with danger from criminal attack," said NRA spokesman Chris Cox.
Charley Wilkison, spokesman for the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas, was more guarded in his assessment.
"A person in Texas has the right under the law to defend their life and property," Wilkison said. "But law enforcement officers are specially trained to handle all kinds of critical situations. ... The Legislature should be cautious about sending the signal that citizens should rush into dangerous situations.
"It's always best to call 911," he added.
Even though current law contains the duty-to-retreat clause, cases where a Texas property owner is prosecuted for shooting intruders are rare. In November 2005, Arlington grandmother Susan Gaylord Buxton made national headlines when she opened fire on an intruder hiding in her home after he was chased through the neighborhood by police.
Buxton had a permit to carry a handgun and was not charged with a crime because she was defending herself, police said.
"If I didn't have a gun to protect myself, I probably wouldn't be here," Buxton said at the time, adding that she had obtained her permit after someone tried to kidnap a granddaughter 12 years earlier.
In 1996, Fort Worth civic leader Thomas B. Reynolds was cleared by a grand jury after fatally shooting a burglar while chasing him from his property across the parking lot of a nearby church. The grand jury concluded that Reynolds was acting within his right to defend his property during the incident.
"Current Texas law effectively imposes a duty to attempt to retreat before using force against an intruder. Texans who do not attempt to escape before using force to protect their homes, their businesses or their vehicles may be criminally prosecuted and face possible civil suits alleging wrongful injury or death."
-- Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio, who filed legislation that would make it clear that a property owner had no "duty to retreat."
John Moritz, 512-476-4294 firstname.lastname@example.org
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