Harming a Burglar: What the Law States


These days it seems that laws and regulations are continually changing. When it comes to protecting what is yours, it helps to know what the law states you can and cannot do legally. The biggest problem comes from the vague wording that is found in most legal statues. We wanted to help consolidate some of the information to give you a one-stop look at what your rights are.

Can I legally harm someone who breaks into my home? When you are confronted in your home by an intruder, it is only natural to want to defend yourself and your property. The problem is that in many states and cities, there are several laws and ordinances that seem to protect the criminal. Your right to protect yourself only goes as far as the criminals right to safety. It is a complicated issue that has several variables. 

We’ve done the hard work of combing through statues to help understand what your rights are; read on to get an idea on what the law states so you can protect yourself, your property, and your family.

What is Burglary vs. Robbery???

There are several terms for criminals that can make it difficult for homeowners to understand the difference. It is common for confusion between the terms used for intruders. Here is a rundown of the most common terms used.

Burglar/Burglary

A person, or persons, that enters a building, residential or commercial, to commit a crime is considered a burglar. The act is regarded as a burglary. 

A burglary turns into a robbery when an intruder encounters and occupant and continues with their plans to steal, with a threat or intent to harm the occupant. On the other hand, if the criminal retreats on discovering that someone in-home (or in the business). The charges would remain in the category of burglary.

Breaking and entering are described as using force to enter a non-public property or another place that is secured without an invitation. In some cases, breaking and entering can be charged if no destruction or forceful entry occurs. 

The term breaking in this instance is said to describe crossing, or disruption of a known or understood boundary. Therefore, someone can be charged with breaking and entering even when a door (or window) is left unsecured.

Reasonable Force: A Gray Area

When discussing legal forms of defense, one of the most common phrases you will hear is a reasonable force. Reasonable force is legally defined as the level of power that is NECESSARY to protect yourself, your family, or your property. Reasonable force is a legal defense, not a law.

A big problem arises when you attempt to define what is necessary. As each break-in is different, so is the amount of reasonable force that could be considered an appropriate response. In very few instances, is taking the life of a criminal considered reasonable force, unless, or until there is an immediate threat of death or serious injury with no other alternative.

Stand-Your-Ground Laws – It Gets More Complicated

Laws and statutes that give homeowners and individuals to protect themselves and their property are often referred to as Stand-Your-Ground, or sometimes Line-in-the-Sand laws. Each state, and sometimes, each county can have laws that are different according to legislation in that state. As of publication, there are currently 33 states that have some form of these laws. Although in recent years there have been several attempts to repeal or enact new laws.

In general, these laws give a person the right to remain on their property and defend themselves without the requirement to leave if they can do so safely. Legal maneuvering has led to several civil lawsuits against these laws, as well as, individuals that have used this to defend themselves in instances that have been argued did not require deadly force.

Imminent Threat

Another aspect of many of these situations is whether the individual is in imminent threat. This refers to immediate risk or death or severe bodily harm. The property does not qualify, as an imminent threat is only possible for people. 

Do’s and Don’ts to Protect Your Home

As if the above is not confusing enough, some regulations determine what you can do to secure your home, as well as what you have the right to if your home is violated. 

What You CAN do

You do have the right to secure your home. That means that you can install all kinds of security devices, including cameras, lighting, and even high decibel alarms. In most areas you can own a dangerous guard dog if you post signs alerting visitors (or intruders) of the danger; Beware of Dog Signs

Recording Videos

Some local and state governments have specific regulations concerning video recording, storage, and in some cases where or even if a recording is allowed. These are usually in situations where your recording may violate a neighbor or others right to privacy, not in cases where people are only recording what happens on their own property.

Weapons

You have the right to display a weapon and, in most cases, discharge that weapon if you feel threatened. However, there are some big Ifs. First, you can only possess and display or discharge a weapon to defend yourself if you can legally able to do so. That means that individuals with a felony history do not have that right. 

You cannot discharge your weapon without the existence of an imminent threat to yourself or your family. Again, this must be an immediate danger. There are several instances where people have used a weapon after the immediate danger has passed. This usually falls into the category of retribution; which we’ll get to in a bit.

What you CANNOT do

It is crazy when you realize that they list for what you are not legally able to do to someone who has violated your home is often more significant than what you can. The unfortunate truth for individuals looking to protect their property from a burglar is that the criminal has rights, even though they are in the process of committing a criminal act. Just like we have our rights as people, they do too.

Intent to Harm

The critical part of this is INTENT. Intent to harm means that someone acted with the knowledge that their actions are likely to have negative or malicious consequences. For example, if you hit someone with force, knowing full well that hitting them could injure them, that could be considered intent to harm. 

Intent to harm is argued against in many cases where a criminal began the act as burglary and then was confronted with a homeowner. In nearly all cases, robbery and other charges related to crimes against persons carry more risk of jail time then burglary cases. Remember that burglary is the absence of a person. The argument is often that “no one was supposed to be there; there was no intent.”

Willful Injury, Assault, or Harm (AKA Malicious Intent)

Like Intent to harm, willful injury and even assault charges have been brought against homeowners that injured or killed an intruder. Some criminals have also attempted to use mental anguish as grounds to have their own charges lessened or dropped. 

Homeowners are encouraged to avoid confrontation whenever possible. However, if a confrontation is unavoidable, to prevent using actions that could be deemed above and beyond what was necessary to protect themselves. Most laws include statues to keep victims of a crime from seeking their own justice or retaliation (see retribution).

Premeditated Attack (Boobytraps)

Most of us would love to see up elaborate traps to capture would-be intruders, preventing them from escaping, and hold them until the authorities arrive. Unfortunately, you cannot detain an intruder in any way. You are also not allowed to use malicious traps to snag a criminal in the act. 

Have you ever seen Home Alone? Pretty much everything the little boy did would or could be considered a premeditated attack and would land a homeowner in jail themselves.

Retribution

Retribution, or retaliation, occurs after the crime has been committed and is over. This refers to several actions that homeowners often want to take after a criminal has been in their home. We already discussed the illegalities of detaining a subject. You cannot attempt to harm or otherwise cause the criminal trouble after they have stolen from you or your home after there is no longer a risk to you or your family.  

Chase or Follow

Victims are also encouraged not to attempt to apprehend an intruder by following them after the crime has been committed. In some cases, home invasion victims have ended up charged with criminal charges for their behavior afterward, even felony charges. 

More Than Reasonable Force

When defending your home or property you are not allowed to use more force than reasonably necessary. This can mean a few things. It may be considered an illegal offense if you have physically engaged with an intruder and continued to attack after they have stopped, either by will or injury. 

It can also be considered illegal if you possess prior knowledge or skills in combat and use those skills knowing they will cause severe harm or even death. The understanding is that you cannot go beyond what is necessary to remove the immediate threat to yourself or others. 

Self-Defense or Murder of an Intruder

Where all these laws get jumbled and complicated is in cases where an intruder has ended up dead as a result of an encounter. Homeowners or those victimized in such cases will claim Self-defense against charges, but for it to be accepted they must meet certain expectations. 

  • You must be actively protecting yourself, your property or someone else. You cannot be the one taking offensive action.
  • There is an immediate threat of death or serious bodily harm.
  • You use no more force than necessary.

Self-defense is not likely a valid defense for someone who shoots and kills an unarmed person, or one that has turned to flee. Shooting someone in the back is going to be murder, not Self-defense.

What to Do if You Discover an Intruder

Now that we have a little understanding of the legalities, as confusing as they are, of what you can and cannot do when you encounter, there are actions that most law enforcement agencies say you SHOULD do. This is only appropriate if you are at home, if you come home to find someone there, you should leave the immediate area and call the police.

Here is a Step-by-Step Plan of Action if you were to discover someone in your home.

  1. Verify that the person is, in fact, an intruder. There are too many instances of mistaken identity that has led to family members being injured, or worse killed, being mistaken for an intruder. If you are unable to visually verify who it is, DO NOT call out to try to find out.
  2. Stay where you are, do not attempt to engage, or otherwise escalate the situation. This is extremely important to your safety if the intruder is unaware that you are home. Startling them could be a terrible idea.
  3. Call the Police – Call the police, 911, or emergency dispatch for your area. (See Ways to Call for Help below)
  4. Stay quiet! Like mentioned above, you risk startling an intruder. You want to avoid drawing attention to yourself. 
  5. Alert anyone else in the home, if you can safely reach them. This may require you to move quietly through your home, remember the goal is to avoid becoming a target.
  6. Securing pets in a room or even closet will help to prevent a home invasion from escalating. The only exception to this is if your pet is a TRAINED protection animal.
  7. Plan for an escape. Your life and those of your family is more important than any material item. If you can remove the threat of harm by leaving, that is the best option, in EVERY situation.
  8. If you have weapons and can access them, you should keep them close and with you while moving through your home, hopefully with the intent on escape. You do not want to run the risk of a weapon being taken and used against you.

Ways to Call for Help

With technology, you may be surprised at the options available to you when you need to reach out for help from law enforcement or other emergency personnel. Here is a quick look at some of the ways you can call for help in an emergency.

  • 911 (or another emergency dispatch) – Most places have 911 operators available to answer a phone call 24 hours a day. For some, there may be a local number that will get you in contact with emergency personnel closer to your home quicker. For example, in many rural areas, 911 is likely routed by the county-level police department. It may be in your best interest to call your city police department. The advantage to 911 is that the number is universal, easy to teach children, and you are not likely to forget it when you are scared or anxious.
  • Texting – There is a growing number of 911 departments that can be reached used smartphone texting or messaging. This allows you to “talk” to someone while reducing the risk of being discovered during a home invasion. Some of the best systems are designed with some automated messaging that helps to get an idea of the situation as quickly as possible. This is also great for younger adults and children that are comfortable with this technology. It also reduces miscommunication from using whispers or being upset and trying to speak.

Check to see if your area supports ‘Text to 911’ services through the FCC. If your community does not currently support this feature, you can use this as a guide to help bring this service to your area.

  • PC, laptop, or tablet – If your only way to contact emergency services is by computer or tablet, you may still be able to contact emergency services, with some limitations.
    • VoIP Phone – an internet-based phone system that can make phone calls using wireless internet services. You can dial direct emergency services numbers. However, you may not be able to dial 911 dispatch. No matter whom you contact, automatic address locations are not going to be accurate, so the first thing you need to ensure is that they have your address.
    • Messaging – Many smaller police departments are using messenger services, such as Facebook, Google Hangouts, and others to give their community members a direct line to the police in case of an emergency. 
    • Friends and family – If you have no other option for contacting emergency services, using a computer to contact someone you know that can do it for you may be a last resort.

Final Thoughts

Your rights and protections under the law may be different depending on where you live. Many states support an individual’s rights to protect their property in the same way they can defend themselves. Contact your state and county legal statues to learn any specific ordinances for your area. We hope this article has at least given you a good overview of your rights and responsibilities should you become a victim of a home invasion. However, we hope you never need to use the information; it is always best to be prepared.

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