Another Castle Doctrine case in Florida heads to the courts

There’s probably another castle doctrine case coming our way and this one takes place in Florida. Gwendolyn Jenrette of Liberty City (outside of Miami) lives in a high crime area and had previously been the victim of burglaries. She had installed a security system with cameras which she could access from her phone and rushed home one day last week when she received an alert that her residence was being broken into yet again. At that point things went south quickly. (Washington Post)

Seventeen-year-old Trevon Johnson died Thursday night after Jenrette shot him once as he allegedly fled the scene of the home invasion, according to Miami-Dade police. There have been no indications that Johnson was armed.

The slaying of the teenage burglary suspect was reported triumphantly by local television station WSVN, which said Jenrette had “turned the tables” on Johnson.

“Police say this would-be robber chose the wrong home because this homeowner did more than just call the cops,” reported WSVN’s Brandon Beyer. “She had a gun.”

But Johnson’s family said the young man didn’t deserve to die over mere property, which they said he hadn’t even taken.

“I don’t care if she have her gun license, her rights or any of that. That is way beyond the law,” Johnson’s cousin Nautika Harris told CBS Miami. “Way beyond.”

At first glance it looks like the homeowner was not only in the right, but should be in good shape with the law. Florida does have a Castle Doctrine Law and it’s been in place for more than a decade. It provides for a number of assumptions, starting with the premise that a criminal who forcibly enters or intrudes into your home or occupied vehicle is there to cause death or great bodily harm. That immediately invokes the right to use deadly force in response. The law also declares that there is no duty to retreat, that the shooter can’t be prosecuted and the perpetrator and their family cannot sue for damages from the shooting.

This case has a twist, though. When you read the details of the incident as recorded by the police, Johnson was climbing out of a window to flee the scene of the crime when Ms. Jenrette discovered him and she shot him in the yard, not inside of the house. The wording of the Castle Doctrine seems to be a bit ambiguous here. Yes, there’s an assumption that the person who forcibly enters or intrudes into your home is there to kill you or cause great harm, but does that apply to your front yard? More to the point, will the state accept that the doctrine still applies when the perpetrator is not only outdoors but fleeing?

Johnson’s relatives are calling for retribution, of course, and it sounds like the courts may entertain their complaint. You may wonder why the focus is on the side of a person who was clearly in the process of committing a serious crime, but his family has an explanation. How else was he supposed to get any money?

Seemingly justifying her relative’s commission of burglary, Johnson’s cousin Nautika Harris suggested it was the only way through which he could obtain money.

“You have to understand, you have to look at it from a child’s point of view that was raised in the hood. How he gonna get his money to have clothes to go to school?” asked Harris.

How Ms. Jenrette fares will tell us how far the homeowner’s rights extend in such a case and if Florida’s Castle Doctrine is strong enough as it stands. I’m all in favor of Stand Your Ground and the rights of property owners, as well as supporting the rights of crime victims and the law abiding. By the same token, the Castle Doctrine is premised on the probability ( or at least the possibility) that your life or safety may be in danger when it’s invoked. As described, this burglar was already out of the house and heading for the public streets when he was shot. This one could readily be seen in court as a bridge too far.

Police Line