The Indiana Court of Appeals decided the case of Brown v. State which involved a resident’s use of force against the police and IC 35-41-3-2 which authorizes such use of force under certain circumstances. The defendant had threatened his neighbors and, when the police went to the defendant’s house, he wouldn’t show his hands through the screen door. The police entered and use force to subdue him, and he resisted. The question was whether the defendant’s use of force was permitted under IC 35-41-3-2. If so, he should not have been convicted of battering a public safety officer.
I was very critical of the legislature’s adoption of the statute, and I think the Court of Appeals reached a just result here. But, I’m not entirely sure that the Court of Appeals reached the correct legal result. (I hasten to add that I am not privy to how the cases were briefed or anything about the case other than the opinion — so it may be that some of that background would change my mind.)
The background is that the Defendant, Brown, was staring down his neighbors who were picking up trash in their back yard, across the alley from him. They got creeped out by his surveillance and asked him what their problem was. Heated words got exchanged. Brown challenged his neighbors to come across the alley and, if they did, he’d “blow their brains out.” The neighbors called the police. The police talked with the neighbors, then went across the street to talk to Brown. They knocked on his door.
Brown opened the front door, holding open the storm door with his left hand while resting his right behind the door jamb, out of the Officers’ view.
“What do you have behind your back there, sir?” asked Spradling.
“Nothing,” Brown replied.
“It’s lying on the counter right now and it’s a .357”—a popular caliber of handgun.
“Why don’t you show me your hands,” said Huth, nearly before Brown had finished his sentence.
Brown, without complying, began to reply, but Huth immediately interrupted him, his voice rising: “Hands up! Hands up! Hands up!”
“My hands are quite visible,” Brown insisted.
The Officers concluded that, by his refusal to show his right hand, Brown had criminally resisted law enforcement. Intending to arrest Brown for that offense but worried that he might draw a gun from his still hidden right hand, Huth drew his stun gun and fired. Seven seconds elapsed between Huth’s first command and the first stun gun shot.
(Internal citations omitted).
Brown tried to close the storm door, the officers entered, and a struggle ensued where Brown and the officers did violence to one another.
One defense Brown raised was under IC 35-41-3-2(i)(1)-(2) which the Court of Appeals describes as follows: “By statute, a person is privileged to use reasonable force if he reasonably believes that the force is necessary to protect himself from the imminent use of unlawful force by police, prevent unlawful entry of his home by police, or terminate unlawful entry of his home by police.”
The trial court had found that the entry by the police was unlawful, but the Court of Appeals disagreed. It looked at a variety of factors and concluded that the entry by the police was lawful. Here’s the problem though — as I noted when I analyzed the statute in 2012 — the statute doesn’t focus on the lawfulness of the police action; it focuses on the reasonableness of a citizen’s belief concerning whether the action is unlawful. It says that the citizen can resist based on a reasonable belief that an unlawful use of force is imminent.
A person is justified in using reasonable force against a public servant if the person reasonably believes the force is necessary to . . . protect the person or a third person from what the person reasonably believes to be the imminent use of unlawful force.
In this case, the trial court believed that the police officers’ entry into the house immediately before using force was unlawful. If the trial court came to that conclusion, it seems difficult to argue that Brown’s belief (correct or incorrect) with respect to the lawfulness of the officers’ entry was unreasonable.
I’m not condoning Brown’s actions or criticizing the officers’ actions. I think the statute was poorly written, and now I think the Court of Appeals may have simply ignored the problematic language in the statute.