In the spring of 2023, a series of back-to-back shootings shook the nation. A Black teenager in Missouri trying to pick up his two younger siblings went to the wrong door and rang the doorbell. The homeowner came to the door with a gun and, without saying a word, fired two shots at the Black teenager, hitting him in the face and the arm. A few days later, a Caucasian woman and her friends in upstate New York, looking for a party, drove up the wrong driveway. The homeowner came out of his house with a shotgun and fired two shots at the car; one of those shots killed the woman. That same day in South Florida, two Instacart delivery shoppers were having trouble finding a customer’s home and mistakenly pulled into the wrong property. As they were trying to leave, the homeowner came out of his house and fired three shots at them, hitting the car. A few nights later, a cheerleader got into a car in a supermarket parking lot in Texas, thinking it was her own. Startled when she saw a man she didn’t know in the passenger seat, she went back to her friend’s car, then realized she had gotten into the wrong car. The man who was in that car shot the cheerleader and one of her friends as she was trying to apologize to him.
When we think of gun violence, we usually think about mass shootings or drive-by shootings by gang members. We don’t expect to get shot if we knock on the wrong door or get into the wrong car. Recently, the United States has seen a marked increase in gun violence initiated by homeowners and other individuals attempting to protect their property. Regardless of whether these tragic events were the result of ringing the wrong doorbell or driving up the wrong driveway, many people may be surprised to learn that the individuals pulling the trigger may not be held criminally liable for their actions if they are in a state with a relaxed form of a little- studied criminal law defense called the defense of habitation that allows homeowners and others to use deadly force in defense of their homes, cars, and workplaces even if they are not being threatened with deadly force. This Article examines the defense of habitation and issues of accountability arising from the use of deadly force by homeowners and others who can utilize this defense.
GW Paper Series
108 Minn. L. Rev. ___ (forthcoming 2024)