UPDATE: La Center incident raises question of when shootings are justified

County's chief deputy prosecutor weighs in on issue

By Laura McVicker, Columbian staff writer

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When is a shooting justified by Washington law? Short answer: Your life is in danger.

That question was raised after the fatal shooting of an apparent prowler in La Center early Tuesday morning. So far, no arrests have been made and the investigation is continuing.

Generally in those cases, officers forward reports to the Clark County Prosecutor’s Office, which makes the decision whether to file charges or rule it a justified shooting.

Chief Deputy Prosecutor John Fairgrieve has not seen reports on the La Center case, but spoke in general terms about self-defense cases. He said the law allows the homeowner to use force if there’s “reasonable belief” his life or the lives of others are in imminent danger, or if the shooter is using force in resistance to a violent felony being committed.

In Washington, homeowners don’t have a duty to flee first before shooting in those cases.

The key phrase is “reasonable belief,” Fairgrieve said.

“If someone shoves you, you can’t respond by shooting them,” he said.

And it doesn’t mean you “get a free pass if someone breaks into your home,” Fairgrieve said. The act of burglarizing doesn’t justify the shooting — the belief of risk does.

The surrounding circumstances of these type of crimes usually determine whether a shooting is justified, such as if the perpetrator is armed or coming toward you or issuing threats.

“It’s really a fact-specific situation,” Fairgrieve said. “It depends on the exact facts of the case.”

For example, if a burglar is outside your house and is running away, “in that situation, deadly force would generally not be appropriate,” he said.

The risk must be imminent, the law says, but doesn’t always need to be outright violence.

“Imminence does not require an actual physical assault,” jury instructions say. “A threat or its equivalent can support self-defense when there is a reasonable belief that the threat will be carried out.”

Homeowner shootings are relatively rare and the court rulings on whether they are justified have varied.

Fairgrieve said the last justifiable homicide in Clark County by a civilian, not a police officer, was more than 15 years ago, when a homeowner shot a burglar inside his home who had advanced toward the homeowner’s wife; the homeowner was not charged.

More recently, in September 2010, a homeowner in the Harney Heights area was charged with first-degree assault for shooting a burglar. Later, the facts showed the two knew each other and the burglar was prowling in the man’s garage to collect on a debt. The homeowner was not convicted in that shooting.

Snohomish County prosecutors are currently reviewing a potential manslaughter case in connection with a homeowner who strangled a thief last summer.

And in Eugene, Ore., in 2010, a resident was charged for allegedly shooting at a man who had tried to crawl through his kitchen window. Police said the intruder was already trying to run away when shot, making the use of force illegal.