Intelligent Discontent

When is Self-Defense Permissible in Montana?


A few news stories caught my eye this evening, drawing attention to the absurdity of self-defense laws in Montana. Back in 2009, the Montana Legislature passed and Governor Schweitzer signed HB 228, a law that, among other things, created a “policy that a defender has no duty to summon help or flee before using force to defend, in any place.”

From Corvallis, we have the story of a man who shot and killed an intruder he claims was breaking into his home. While he has made no determination about charges yet, Ravalli County Sherriff Chris Hoffman suggested the law would protect the homeowner:

“First of all, I have no idea yet if the castle doctrine law is germane to this incident,” Hoffman said. “But my interpretation is a person has every right to protect him or herself in their home if they fear for their life. They are in no obligation to hide out or call 9-1-1. If they are in fear for their life, they have every right to defend themselves or use deadly force.”

In Sunburst, we have a different case in which a man has been charged with a hit and run negligent homicide charge. Before the man allegedly ran over a victim, he was attacked in a parking lot by the man:

All parties agree Levi Rowell confronted Santoro in the parking lot, edging into the space between where his and Santoro’s truck were parked. Both Gallup and Tiffany Rowell followed behind, squeezing into narrow a space behind Santoro’s open, passenger-side door.

According to the state’s affidavit, Santoro and Potter told investigators that Rowell grabbed Santoro by the neck and began choking him.

When questioned by Toole County authorities, Santoro offered a defense that was not unlike those who argued for the expanded Castle Doctrine at the 2009 Legislature:

“I hope the (expletive) is dead, hope he’s (expletive) dead, hope he’s paralyzed … from the neck,” Santoro allegedly said, according to the affidavit. “I was done. I was done. … They were calling me out.”

Then later, “The man should never have started choking me out in my own (expletive) car … So what I did was throw it in reverse, and (evaded) the scene …. I don’t see what’s so (expletive) wrong with that.”

My post isn’t meant to suggest that these situations are precisely analogous or to evaluate the guilt of either man, but the simultaneous reporting of these two stories makes clear the problems of a self-defense doctrine that relies exclusively on a person’s own perception that he faces a threat. It seems fair to ask if Mr. Santoro would be free of any charges if he had simply fired a gun rather than driven his truck aggressively at the person he perceived to be a threat.

The law simply encourages violent responses, especially with a gun. Whether it was the Wal-Mart worker who shot a fellow employee in the forehead, the man in the Flathead who shot another man who had not even attacked him, or the still troubling shooting near Wolf Creek, it seems the law sold to Montanans as a means of protecting their safety and liberty has just endangered their lives.

It’s time for the Legislature to revisit this absurd law—and remember that the purpose of the law has to be to protect the idea of civil society, not encourage senseless violence. Let’s hope the 2015 session has more legislators interested in serving the vast majority of Montanans, not the NRA.

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Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba is a sixteen year teacher of English, former debate coach, and loyal, if often sad, fan of the San Diego Padres and Portland Timbers. He spends far too many hours of his life working at school and on his small business, Big Sky Debate. In the past few years, travel has become a priority, whether it's a road trip to some little town in Montana or a museum of culture in Ísafjörður, Iceland.

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