“Castle Doctrine” Bill Passes Ohio Senate, Beware Criminals, No Civil Lawsuits for You

OhioNews Bureau

ONB COLUMBUS: With succinctness and a dab of dark humor, Sen. Tim Grendell, R-Chesterland, told criminals who commit crimes in someone's home or car that “you will not get a volume discount on killing more than one person.”

Grendell's grim comment came following the unanimous passage Wednesday by the Ohio Senate of the aptly dubbed ”Castle Doctrine” bill. It protects anyone who uses deadly force to defend themselves or another person from any civil liability against the person who created the threat against whom the deadly force was used.

In a 31-0 vote, the bill sponsored by Sen. Steve Buehrer, a member who represents a group of conservative counties in Northwest Ohio, was an identical twin of a House bill that sought to devise a bulwark defense for anyone who uses a gun to protect themselves, their family or their property against the nightmarish scenario of someone breaking into their home or their car.

One of the most controversial parts of the bill was the portion that provides that, if the person against whom the deadly force was used was committing a felony or a forcible trespass upon the home of the person accused of using deadly force illegally, then there is a rebuttable presumption that the person who acted in self-defense acted properly.

"We're changing the presumption of innocence, shifting it from the law breaker to the law abider. It's an upside down world when someone can break into your house, and you defend yourself, and you then find yourself defending a lawsuit. The burden of proof shouldn't be on you for acting in self-defense." [Sen. Jay Hottinger, R-Newark]

But one long-time Statehouse lobbyist said he disagreed with those who say the bill would also give homeowners the right to shoot based on something called forcible trespass. The mild-mannered, affable Statehouse bulldog for the Ohio Prosecuting Attorney Association, John Murphy, said, “There is no necessity for the person to show that the trespasser was a real threat to them. It doesn't matter whether it was a burglar or a child."

Furthermore, Murphy believes the bill could provide a loophole to criminals. "What this bill really does is protect criminals who might be able to raise this kind of defense and get away with murder," Murphy told John Fortney of 10TV in Columbus.

The bill’s primary critics, Murphy and John Gilchrist, a contract lobbyist for the Ohio Association of Chiefs of Police, argued before the Senate Judiciary-Criminal Justice Committee that the unintended consequences from the bill out weigh its merits.

Testifying before the committee, Gilchrist said his association believes the bill would do nothing to help law-abiding citizens who legitimately act in self-defense and noted that proponents have shown “no need to justify changing current law.”

“It will, however, create a great deal of confusion with the law and will be of benefit to certain criminals who kill or injure others and then assert self-defense. The rebuttable presumption that the criminal acted properly puts one more burden on our prosecutors. If the common law rules on self-defense are nullified, Ohio will see more violent confrontations.” [John Gilchrist, Committee testimony]

But the bill had big momentum. Whether the concerns of critics were addressed fully or not is no longer an issue, as comments from the Senate floor revealed. Grendell said the route the bill took was “long and arduous” and “truly bipartisan.” The former military prosecutor, who ran unsuccessfully to represent the Republican Party for the office of Attorney General in 2006, thanked those who worked on the bill, including Murphy but not Gilchrist. He then cut to the chase on the foundations of the bill.

“This is a ‘right to defend yourself bill,’ not a gun bill,” he said with relish. He said those listening that “criminals invading an Ohio home do so at their own peril.” He warned criminals that their conduct does not create a civil cause of action. “If you’re committing a crime and you get hurt, you didn’t buy yourself a civil crime,” said Grendell in all too sober terms.

Current Ohio law says someone confronted with an intruder in their home as a duty to retreat before using force that could harm or kill the intruder. The Castle Doctrine bill says that’s no longer the case. Now, anyone defending their “castle” has no duty to retreat before “using force in self-defense, defense of another, or defense of that person's residence, and a person who lawfully is an occupant of that person's vehicle or who lawfully is an occupant in a vehicle owned by an immediate family member of the person has no duty to retreat before using force in self-defense or defense of another.”

Cincinnati Republican Sen. Bill Seitz, whose legal credentials and insight are well known, said the bill is not about the Second Amendment (right to bears arms) or guns. “You have the right to use self defense whether you’re using a gun, knife, judo, numchucks, baseball bat or gun,” he said as he directed members’ attention to current law that said no matter how many people someone kills, their sentence only reflects that they’ve killed one person, not many, as was the case in the shootings at Virginia Tech last year.

The new bill modifies existing provisions regarding mandatory prison terms for firearms specifications, meaning a court can now impose more than one prison term of an offender for multiple felonies committed as part of the same act or transaction.

Sen. Capri Cafaro, D-Hubbard, said passage of the bill represented that “Ohio is finally going to implement what is common-sense legislation.” Nineteen other states have passed similar legislation.

Speaking in starkly harsher terms, Sen. Robert Spada, R-North Royalton, said about passing the bill, ‘We’re protecting our selves from the animals that may intrude into our home.”

For clarification purposes, the bill’s sponsor responded to senator’s questions that the bill applies to dwellings and occupied vehicles, but not in a park or on the street. And the vehicle, Buehrer said, doesn’t need to be owned for actions under the bill to be protected, it can be a rental car.

John Michael Spinelli is a former Ohio Statehouse government and political reporter and business columnist. He now serves as the OhioNews Bureau Chief for ePluribus Media Journal. Find ONB archives here.

If readers have a news tip or story idea about Ohio politics or government, contact the OhioNews Bureau at: ohionews@epluribusmedia.org

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