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South Carolina Father Wins Self-Defense Immunity in Shooting of Bystander

South Carolina Father Wins Self-Defense Immunity in Shooting of Bystander

A father in South Carolina who fired his handgun in self-defense–and in the process killing an apparent innocent bystander–has successfully argued that he is not subject to criminal or civil liability under the state’s self-defense immunity law.

South Carolina’s self-defense immunity statute–§16-11-450. Immunity from criminal prosecution and civil actions; law enforcement officer exception; costs.–is essentially identical to Florida’s self-defense immunity statute currently under legislative review (as covered by Legal Insurrection here)–§776.032. Immunity from criminal prosecution and civil action for justifiable use of force.

The Issue Is Self-Defense Immunity, Not “Stand Your Ground”

As is frequently the case in Florida, news coverage of this case invariably conflates the state’s self-defense immunity statute with other legal provisions involving issues of retreat, incorrectly referring to such immunity hearings as “Stand Your Ground” hearings. In fact, as was the case with the George Zimmerman trial, this South Carolina case had nothing whatever to do with Stand Your Ground, which is covered by completely different South Carolina statutes (§16-11-420. Intent and findings of General Assembly and §16-11-440. Presumption of reasonable fear of imminent peril when using deadly force against another unlawfully entering residence, occupied vehicle or place of business.)

The father, Shannon Scott, argued that his conduct was covered under South Carolina’s self-defense immunity law in a pre-trial hearing before Judge Maite Murphy, and the Judge announced his agreement in a 12-page ruling filed yesterday.

The ruling was covered by the South Carolina newspaper The State, which cast the story in terms of whether the immunity provision should apply when the person acting in self-defense ends up shooting someone who is a bystander to the attack, rather than an actual attacker.

In fact, the status of the person actually shot has little import in determining immunity under the statute, nor should it. It is a tautology that under the self-defense laws in every state the lawful use of force in self-defense is not a crime, whatever the outcome of that use of force might be.

The only variable introduced by South Carolina’s immunity statute is whether the user of force will be required to have their criminal liability determined solely by means of a lengthy criminal trial and jury verdict or whether (under the statute) the determination of criminal liability can be made in a pre-trial hearing.

Q: Did Father’s Use of Force Align With Five Elements of Law of Self -Defense?

The issue for Judge Murphy, then, is not whether the immunity statute applies if the person against whom the force is used turns out later to have not been an attacker, but simply whether the conduct of the person acting in self-defense is consistent with the law of self-defense.
More specifically, the court was required to ask the following five questions:

(1) Was Mr. Scott an innocent (non-aggressor) in the conflict?

The evidence supported Mr. Scott’s claim that aggressors came to his home, not he to them, making him the innocent party for purposes self-defense.

(2) Was Mr. Scott facing an imminent threat of death or grave bodily harm?

The evidence supported Mr. Scott’s claim that the aggressors had just fired shots at him.

(3) Was Mr. Scott’s use of force proportional to the threat?

The evidence of shots being fired at Mr. Scott–clearly deadly force–warranted the use of a deadly force response in self-defense.

(4) Did Mr. Scott violate any duty to retreat before using force in self-defense?

Standing in his own yard Mr. Scott was privileged under South Carolina’s “Castle Doctrine” to be exempt from any duty to retreat that might otherwise have existed

(5) Was Mr. Scott’s conduct both subjectively and objectively reasonable?

Mr. Scott took the witness stand in the pre-trial hearing to testify to his subjective reasonableness, in the course of which he necessarily subjected himself to cross-examination by the state.

There was also considerable evidence concerning the circumstances and conditions of the night’s events that would have guided a determination of objective reasonableness–including that the daughter was followed home by a car full of known thugs, that the attack took place at 1:30AM, that law enforcement was not immediately available, etc.

A: Father’s Use of Force WAS Lawful Self-Defense; Ergo Immunity Attaches

The Judge’s finding of immunity clearly reflects that he found this evidence supported, by at least a preponderance of the evidence, the reasonableness of Mr. Scott’s conduct under the circumstances and knowing what Scott knew of those circumstances at the time. Indeed, in his ruling the Judge finds that “When the defendant fired the shot, he reasonably believed he was being attacked with deadly force directed at his home.”

The State SC Stand Your Ground Timeline

Once the five elements of the law of self-defense have been found in Mr. Scott’s favor, his use of force was lawfully justified, and the responsibility for the loss of life of a purported innocent bystander is properly placed at the feet of the initial aggressors of the conflict, and not upon the person who lawfully defended himself against their aggression.

Analogous to Felony Murder

The clear analogy to this case under the criminal law is the well established principle of felony murder. When a store owner is attacked by an armed robber, defends himself with lethal force, and accidentally kills an innocent customer, the criminal liability for that killing is placed upon the robber, as a murder taking place during the commission of a felony, regardless of the manner in which the killing took place.

The State attorney’s office has appealed Judge Murphy’s ruling to the State Supreme Court.

–Andrew, @LawSelfDefense

Andrew F. Branca is an MA lawyer and the author of the seminal book “The Law of Self Defense, 2nd Edition,” available at the Law of Self Defense blog, Amazon.com (paperback and Kindle), Barnes & Noble (paperback and Nook), and elsewhere.

In addition to the book, Andrew also conducts Law of Self Defense Seminars all around the country, with upcoming seminars scheduled for Columbia SC (10/19), Atlanta GA (11/16), and Epping NH (11/24, at the SigSauer Academy, where Andrew is a Guest Instructor). Click here for reviews of recently completed seminars in Ohio, Virginia, and Florida.  You can follow Andrew on Twitter at @LawSelfDefense and using #LOSD2, on Facebook, and at his blog, The Law of Self Defense.

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Comments

It would be horrendous if a valid self-defense claim were subject to civil wrongful death suits. Thank goodness the immunity blankets both criminal and civil statutes.

“The clear analogy to this case under the criminal law is the well established principle of felony murder. When a store owner is attacked by an armed robber, defends himself with lethal force, and accidentally kills an innocent customer, the criminal liability for that killing is placed upon the robber, as a murder taking place during the commission of a felony, regardless of the manner in which the killing took place.”

As an aside, this is the analogy I use when I am forced to justify an abortion of a child in the case of a rape.

The criminal liability for that killing is placed upon the rapist, not the mother, in such cases. No one ought to be forced to carry a child to term as a result of a heinous crime of rape. If the child is carried to term, that reflects upon the saintly quality of the woman, and in no way abrogates the criminal liability of the rapist for the initial crime.

I can’t agree with this. IF an innocent bystander is killed, the shooter was negligent and has to pay. If the shooter is let off by the courts, hypothetically speaking, as the parent of the 17-y.o. innocent bystander who was killed, I would institute good ‘ol fashioned and common sense American justice.

    Paul in reply to walls. | October 10, 2013 at 5:11 pm

    vigilantism is rather frowned upon. There is good reason for immunity in cases of self defense. The first being, it isn’t a crime to defend yourself. And any liability for that innocent bystander’s death is a result of the initial aggressor.

    You have to first put the blame where it belongs, before you can have justice.

    “Detached reflection cannot be demanded in the presence of an uplifted knife.” Brown v. United States, 256 U.S. 335 (1921)

    A person who fires a misdirected round that takes an innocent life while that person is in a desperate fight for their life, the life of their spouse, or child, is not in the same category of culpability as someone who fires a misdirected round through sheer negligence.

    –Andrew, @LawSelfDefense

    iconotastic in reply to walls. | October 10, 2013 at 7:49 pm

    And after reading the story and the comments, it sounded like the innocent bystander was part of the group that followed the girls home, though not in the same car as the female thugs. This young man chose his friends and acquaintances poorly.

    It sounds like a good decision. Which means it will be hated by progressives and others.

      Yukio Ngaby in reply to iconotastic. | October 10, 2013 at 9:24 pm

      Was it a good decision because of a reasonable law, or was it a good decision because the “innocent bystander was part of the group that followed the girls home, though not in the same car as the female thugs. This young man chose his friends and acquaintances poorly.”

      I feel that it’s absolutely correct that the responsibilty for the death lies at the feet of the aggressors and not Scott. Because of this, the guilt by association of the victim should mean nothing one way or another.

        I read iconotastic’s comment as considering how much sorrow or pity for the deceased. Not as culpability, of which we don’t have enough information, no, there is almost no chance the others involved would willingly offer information that would “prove” Mr. Niles’ relative involvement if there were.

        Heads, they lie to police about it.
        Tails, they tell the whole truth.

        Look, what a surprise, they said it was tails.

        iconotastic in reply to Yukio Ngaby. | October 11, 2013 at 1:31 pm

        I would say that it was a good decision because (1) the law is both very reasonable and (2) the presence of the bystander in a car that came with the shooters at 1:30am in the midst of a gunfight shows that the father was not shooting recklessly into crowds.

        The court would have granted immunity to a police officer under similar circumstances so it should grant that immunity to a citizen.

ufo destroyers | October 10, 2013 at 5:28 pm

As your grandparents and parents say, “Nothing good happens after midnight.” Remember that kids.

Related but unrelated, what the heck is a 15 year old doing at a “nightclub” after midnight? If it had been a school dance, that would be one thing, but a nightclub?

As a practical matter, South Carolina juries have traditionally taken a broad view of self defense, and most local solicitors (prosecutors) keep that in mind when charging.

We had a local case some years ago which one might not think qualified under the “castle doctrine.” A man had a sign in his front yard, near the road in a very rural area, which depicted the Confederate flag. It had been vandalized several times, and he began to notice a pattern, it was always between midnight and 1 a.m. on Friday nights after the local high school had a home football game. So he waited on his porch in the dark with his gun.

Sure enough, a car pulls up on the road with headlights out, stops, and out pops a youth with something in his hand (spray paint can) in the shadows who comes onto the property. The man shoots and hits him (not fatally) and the youth jumps in the car and speeds away. The ER later turns him in, and an investigation follows.

The kid was the 17-year-old son of a prominent black businessman. He was charged with criminal trespass, no charges for the property owner, and the boy’s father offered a public apology for his son’s behavior. Al Sharpton was not called.

It is interesting that at the time we had a black Sheriff and a Democratic Solicitor. The local NAACP initially made some noise, but quieted down quickly. Pretty much everyone in the County, irrespective of race, agreed the property owner acted responsibly and they might do the same, even if they disagreed with the flag display.

I have not heard about the case on any of the national news feeds. I haven’t been able to locate a photo of the victim or the shooter. I am not aware of Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson planning any rallies or marches to raise awareness of ‘this horrible injustice so typical in white America.’ Nor have I read of any statements by the President regarding this tragedy.

I am therefore going to use my natural racist talents, which I have been assured I was born with and will never be able to apologize enough for, to make the following assumptions:

Either…

1. The shooter, Shannon Scott, is a black man which makes the race of the victim irrelevant to any national media outlets.

OR

2. The victim was white which makes the race of the shooter irrelevant to any national media outlets.

Don’t bother telling me what a horrible person I am.
I am reminded on a daily basis by multiple news columnists.
(I am homophobic and misogynistic, too.)

[…] yourself from harm. A lot of participants had some very strong, and opposing, opinions over it. Stand Your Ground | South Carolina | Immunity http://jack-burton.hubpages.com/ Reply With […]

Does anyone have a link to the court’s opinion in this matter?
Thanks

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