The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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April 17, 2012

Proponents say ‘Castle Doctrine’ is a solid law

Letting homeowners in West Virginia use deadly force to repel an invader poses no problems since the law differs from the broader “stand your ground” statute that has come under fire in the aftermath of the Trayvon Martin slaying in Florida, say two proponents of the “Castle Doctrine.”

Some have begun to question the Florida law and similar ones across the nation, given the circumstances that surrounded the Feb. 26 fatal shooting that led to a second-degree murder charge against Sanford neighborhood watch coordinator George Zimmerman.

When police arrived, Zimmerman claimed Martin attacked him and that he fired the fatal shot in self-defense.

West Virginia legislators approved a law back in the 2008 session, pushed by Senate President Jeffrey Kessler, D-Marshall, and former Sen. Shirley Love, D-Fayette.

The idea was to provide state residents a measure of protection from burglars and other home invaders by allowing the use of deadly force without fear of criminal charges or civil liability. About 30 states have such laws on the books.

Before the law was enacted and signed by then-Gov. Joe Manchin, a lifelong member of the National Rifle Association, West Virginians were obligated to retreat from criminals seeking to rob or harm them within their domicile.

“Our law is different from Florida’s in a lot of respects,” Love said Monday.

“Ours is more similar to Texas. Ours doesn’t give you a license to go out and shoot your brother-in-law. It protects you in your own domain, in your home, on your premises.”

Kessler, likewise, defended the state’s law, a key issue advocated four years ago by the NRA, and said he foresees no difficulties with it.

“I believe West Virginia’s law is just fine,” Kessler said.

“It applies to one’s home and vehicle where one has the right to use deadly force to protect oneself, their family and property in their own private domain from intruders.”

Castle Doctrine is a concept that harks back to English common law and is couched in the long-standing idea that a man’s house is his castle and the wind, but not the king, may enter.

“The Florida law seems perhaps to be broader and more of a ‘no retreat’ law which may apply even though Zimmerman was outside of his own home setting and reportedly, from the 911 tapes, he also was initially the pursuer of Trayvon Martin, rather than the other way around,” the Senate president said.

“If Martin was the aggressor, then it becomes more of a self-defense rather than a pure ‘castle doctrine’ case, since it occurred outside Zimmerman’s home. It will be interesting to follow the case there as the facts continue to develop.”

Love said the old West Virginia law was problematic, in that it obligated homeowners to back off from an invader rather than use force to protect hearth and home.

“The only problem I had with our law before this law was passed was that the criminal had all the rights and the homeowner didn’t have any,” the former senator said.

If a homeowner used force for self-preservation, he potentially was liable for the criminal’s medical bills and could have exposed himself to criminal charges, Love said.

“You were guilty until proven innocent,” he said.

“But under the new West Virginia law, you’re considered innocent until an investigation would take place and you would be proven guilty.”

Love emphasized that no law is free of potential misuse.

“There will be instances, no matter what, in every law, where you’re going to have somebody that’s going to abuse it and West Virginia won’t be any exception,” he said.

“But overall, for the 99.9 percent of the people it will protect, that was the intent of it.”

In a bill-signing ceremony, Manchin referred to the measure as a common-sense one that codifies what West Virginians have traditionally embraced — the right to protect their homes.

“Every person’s home is a castle, and every person’s family member is a royal family member,” he said at the time.

“As long as the people know that we treat our family members like kings and queens, and we treat our homes like castles, don’t mess with us.”

— E-mail: mannix@register-herald.com

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