‘Castle Doctrine’ Law Already Altering Justice Proceedings

By Beacon Staff

A controversial new self-defense law is already having a significant impact on two high-profile cases in Billings and Ronan. And while some involved with negotiations over the so-called “Castle Doctrine” bill are monitoring its effects on the justice system to see if it requires modifications, the bill’s sponsor believes the legislation is, so far, serving its purpose.

“It’s working exactly as it’s supposed to work,” Rep. Krayton Kerns, R-Laurel, said. “You have a fundamental right of self-defense.”

“If this is going to provoke a lot of challenges, so be it, but that is a battle we have to be willing to fight,” he added.

Kerns’ House Bill 228, passed this year, states that Montanans have no obligation to retreat or seek law enforcement assistance, in their home or anywhere else, before using deadly force if threatened. The law also prevents landlords or hotel owners from curbing their tenants’ gun rights, and places the burden of proof in self-defense shootings on the state, instead of the shooter.

That last item is what has had repercussions throughout Montana in recent months. In August, a Billings Wal-Mart employee was released from custody after allegedly shooting a co-worker in the face with a .25-caliber semiautomatic Beretta handgun because he said he did so in self-defense. Yellowstone County Attorney Dennis Paxinos told the Billings Gazette that prior to the passage of HB 228, authorities would have had probable cause to arrest Schmidt for assault with a weapon.

The accused shooter, Craig Schmidt, reportedly said he used the gun to defend himself against the much larger Danny Lira, who had punched him in the face after a dispute over the length of a work break. The bullet only grazed Lira’s forehead; he was released from the hospital soon after and will not have charges filed against him.

As for Schmidt, Yellowstone County authorities are still investigating the case and have yet to determine whether he will be charged with anything. But in making that decision, they must now look at circumstances that weren’t required previously, like whether a history of aggression between the two men existed, what they said to each other during the confrontation, and whether Schmidt had a real reason to believe his life was in danger.

Those exact considerations are also at the center of a fatal stabbing that occurred Aug. 16 in Ronan. Allen Metzger is accused of murdering James Finch in the men’s room of the Valley Club bar. On Sept. 8, Metzger’s attorney, Lance Jasper, submitted a motion to reduce bail for his client to $25,000, on the grounds that he acted in self-defense, and cited the Castle Doctrine law as the reason, because Metzger was being attacked by Finch at the time he allegedly stabbed him.

“Shifting the burden to the state in this manner demonstrates a change in Montana law which recognizes the importance of being allowed to defend oneself without subsequently being faced with unreasonable consequences,” Jasper wrote in the motion.

Metzger has pleaded not guilty to charges of deliberate homicide and carrying a concealed weapon in a prohibited place. The judge has postponed setting bond until after the Lake County attorney can respond to Jasper’s motion.

But Jasper’s motion itself paints a picture of a months-long rift between Metzger and Finch that climaxed on the night of Finch’s death, making the case for why the stabbing was an act of self-defense.

Finch was a man who was “known to be aggressive when intoxicated and had a habit of starting fights when he was in a drunken state,” Jasper’s motion said.

Earlier this year, Metzger had allowed Finch to park a trailer on his property, but asked him to leave after discovering Finch stole some of his belongings and destroyed others. Metzger soon began receiving threats, which he believed Finch was behind, and reported them to the police.

“Because no action was taken by the police, Allen (Metzger) feared for his life and began carrying a knife in order to protect himself,” Jasper’s motion said.

On the night of the incident, Finch followed Metzger into the Valley Club bathroom and began “brutally attacking him.”

“As Allen (Metzger) began to lose consciousness from being hit repeatedly in the face and head by Mr. Finch, he was forced to use the knife he carried to defend himself,” Jasper’s motion said. “Allen only used such force necessary to stop the attack and immediately retreated from the bathroom and the Valley Club.”

From there, Metzger headed straight to a friend’s house who lived near the bar, told him what happened and the friend called 911.

These cases within a few months of the new bill’s passage make it likely that Metzger’s case won’t be the last where such self-defense claims come into play. Helena Mayor Jim Smith is a lobbyist for law enforcement groups who fought against Kerns’ Castle Doctrine bill on the grounds that it sought to solve a nonexistent problem. Smith calls the new provision “problematic for local law enforcement and prosecutors.”

“I suspect that if this continues there will be some tipping point where sheriffs, county attorneys, ordinary citizens begin thinking that the law might need to be tweaked a bit,” Smith said. “The impact of this law on domestic violence cases is something we’re concerned about as well.”

But Kerns believes, at least in the case of the Wal-Mart shooting, that the absence of charges filed against Schmidt indicates prosecutors don’t have much evidence against him.

“We’re just asking them to investigate first, before they file charges, and I don’t think that’s over the top,” Kerns said. “You’re innocent until proven guilty and that’s all that it’s asking.”

The bill passed the Legislature with wide bipartisan support in the Senate and smaller margin in the House. Sen. John Brueggeman, a Republican in whose district the Ronan stabbing occurred, voted for the bill and still believes it was the right vote. But he also thinks it’s imperative that lawmakers watch how the law ultimately affects the justice system in Montana, and if necessary, take steps to change it in 2011.

“If this is a problem, or potentially becomes more of a problem, yes, the Legislature has to take a look at this,” Brueggeman said. “Whenever you make a change, you’ve got to take a close look at it and see what the outcome is.”

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