That old adage that a person’s home is their castle is something that Montana law treats as sacred.
The lengths that a person can go to protect one’s home stretches much further than what one can do on a public street. This goes as far as using deadly force inside the home, even at the slightest hint of harm.
It’s sometimes referred to as Montana’s “castle law,” which essentially gives people the right to use deadly force to protect themselves or anyone else inside their homes. Butte Chief Deputy County Attorney Samm Cox said it’s been common law in Montana since the beginning of statehood that people can protect their homes by any means necessary.
“In Montana, you don’t have to retreat and you don’t have to call the police,” Cox said.
This principle was applied recently when an East Helena man shot and killed an intruder he found in his home. After an investigation, law enforcement determined James Stiffler, 66, was within his rights to shoot Henry Thomas Johnson III, 37, of Helena.
ON THE STREET
While the law concerning the defense of one’s home may have been coin of the realm for more than a century, it wasn’t until 2009 that this distinction was made into statutory form. It’s this law that Cox explained puts clear distinctions between legally defending one’s home and defending one’s self on the street.
A person who finds an intruder in their home has the right to use deadly force to protect themselves or anyone else in the residence by having “reasonable belief” that harm is about to be done, Cox explained. Example: Finding a masked man in your home in the middle of the night with some kind of object in his hand could be enough reasonable belief that you are in danger. It would be within your rights to shoot this masked intruder without any legal repercussions.
Reasonable belief doesn’t apply on the street, according to Montana law. If people use deadly force to protect themselves while walking down Main Street, Cox explained that they better be able to prove there was an “imminent threat” of major injury or death.
If a person is in his or her home, even a misdemeanor assault is enough to warrant a deadly force.
Cox explained that the distinction is there, because Montana law views the home as hallowed ground.
“The way the law looks at it is that you should feel safe in your home. That’s a place that no one should be allowed to invade,” Cox said.
Outside the home, a person must prove a justifiable use of force.
In 2008, Jason Schmidt was sentenced to 40 years in the stabbing death of a man during a fight outside a Butte bar. Schmidt’s attorneys tried to argue that Schmidt was acting in self defense. The defense argued Schmidt believed his life was in danger, because he was being beaten by a stronger man who was on top of him, so Schmidt stabbed him several times. James Correia died from the stabbing.
Cox, who prosecuted that case, said the jury didn’t find Schmidt had cause to use deadly force.
“The jury decided that you don’t bring a knife to a fist fight,” Cox said.
A person can use deadly violence to save themselves or the life of another person while one the street.
“I’m a big proponent for justifiable use of force and self defense; it’s a God-given right,” Cox said.
Montana law does require a thorough investigation if deadly force is used inside the home.
Butte police Capt. George Skuletich said it’s his department’s policy to investigate any kind of home defense fatality.
“You treat everything like a crime scene until it isn’t (a crime scene),” he said.
Evidence would be collected, all parties interviewed and stories would be checked out. Police want to make sure that this was a legitimate home defense scenario and not just two buddies arguing over a hand of poker that escalated into violence.
As an officer of the law, Skuletich says human life is more valuable than property and would prefer people avoid deadly force.
“If you can get out of that situation (without resorting to violence), then do it,” he said.
— Reporter John Grant Emeigh may be reached via email at email@example.com or phone at 496-5511. Follow him at Twitter.com/@johnemeigh.