Recently, we saw Wisconsin's castle doctrine law applied for the first time in a case in Slinger. A young man, apparently running from police during the breakup of an underage drinking party, hid in the porch of the next-door neighbor. The neighbor, reportedly frightened by the noises and presence of a stranger, confronted the young man and shot him. Emergency help arrived in response to the homeowner's call, but the young man died of the single wound.
The use of deadly force always has been a complete defense to a homicide charge where the person using it reasonably believed that it was necessary to protect himself or another from imminent death or great bodily harm. The new castle doctrine law expanded the concept by presuming that the person using deadly force had a reasonable belief that its use was necessary where an intruder has or is forcibly entering the "dwelling."
The term "dwelling" in the new law includes not just the home but all the immediate property, including the yard, driveway and garage. The Washington County district attorney did a thorough analysis of the facts, applied the law of self-defense with the castle doctrine and came to the conclusion that no charges were justified.
As a lawyer who has worked in the courts for many years and represented many young people, I compared the facts of this night to similar incidents in our community. We all can think of incidents in which young people have engaged in improper or illegal conduct, including underage drinking, marijuana use, stealing beer from garages and, that frequent annoyance, toilet-papering. Often kids run from police, who are called to deal with the nuisance.
No one should excuse such bad behavior, but consequences should be appropriate. After all, most immature, still-developing youths who make impulsive decisions will grow up to become responsible adults. Holding kids appropriately accountable and supervising them assists the maturation process.
As a former judge and as a lawyer, I have read police reports describing groups of teens fleeing police and scattering through neighborhoods after a drinking party. On many occasions, young people have been in a yard, on a porch, in a garage or pool deck, all areas now considered part of the "dwelling." There were times when homeowners may have been frightened by the teens' behavior but, thankfully, no one was harmed and the kids made restitution, received their consequences and grew up.
We all know that many responsible people own guns, and innocent lives have been saved by the use of firearms in self-defense. But I do think that someone needs to tell kids that the rules have changed.
Many people have become more aware of their right to own and use guns in self-defense. In the middle of the night, kids may encounter homeowners who feel threatened by the unknown intruder on their property. The homeowner may not realize that these are just kids, and the results could be life-altering or life-ending.
Parents should use the incident in Slinger as an object lesson to talk to kids. Warning kids that they could encounter a fearful homeowner with a gun if they trespass on private property may not turn them into model citizens, but it gives parents one more argument against bad behavior and may save two families from a tragedy.
Attorney Kathleen Stilling is a partner with the criminal defense law firm of Buting, Williams & Stilling, S.C., in Brookfield. She served as a Waukesha County circuit judge from 2010 to 2011.