Looking ahead to what is scheduled to be a September capital murder trial (click here for background), we learn that a man shot and killed what he thought was a home invader; it turned out to be a police officer conducting a no-knock search based off a warrant the officer had obtained (they didn’t find anything, for the record).
Despite these seemingly innocent circumstances, the homeowner who killed the officer is being charged with capital murder. We asked Emily Taylor, an attorney with the law firm of Walker & Byington in Houston and a Texas Law Shield Independent Program Attorney, to shed some light on these facts.
- What is Capital Murder?
Taylor explained that there are several ways to commit capital murder. She elaborated that “of the ways to commit capital murder, we are looking at the ‘biggie’ here — a person who murders a peace officer, who is acting in the lawful discharge of an official duty and who the person knows is a peace officer, commits capital murder.”
This is worse than your run-of-the-mill homicide because if you’re convicted of capital murder, you’re eligible for the death penalty. The alternative isn’t much better; life in prison without parole. Taylor summarized that, “for this individual to avoid a life sentence without parole, or worse, the death penalty, the most important issues are: were the police in lawful discharge of their duties; did the individual in question know that it was a police officer entering his home; and finally, is there evidence that indicates the shooting was reasonable and justified.”
- Why didn’t the police knock and announce who they were before entering the home?
“The general rule is that the police must ‘knock and announce’ their presence prior to entering a premises to execute a warrant,” Taylor said. She elaborated that there is an exception to this requirement. “If the police can articulate a reasonable suspicion to believe that if they knocked or announced before entering it would be ‘dangerous, futile, or would frustrate the search’s purpose,’ then they no longer have to knock and announce.”
Taylor stated that there are two ways to accomplish this “no-knock” goal. The police can ask in the warrant itself that it dispense with the knock-and-announce requirement. Alternatively, they may claim that the circumstances on-scene surrounding the actual search justified dispensing with the knock-and-announce requirement at the time the warrant was executed—no prior approval needed.
How hard is it for the police to satisfy this requirement? In practice, the potential for the destruction of evidence and concerns of officer safety will almost always supersede the knock-and-announce rule.
So what does this mean? Taylor said, “It is pretty easy for the police to legally break down your door to execute their warrant, without any warning to you.”
- What about the Castle Doctrine?
Taylor made it a point to mention that “People who are familiar with the law in Texas will immediately ask, ‘isn’t this a Castle Doctrine situation?’ which is a good point to make.” She referenced the Castle Doctrine law, which says you are presumed reasonable to use deadly force to defend yourself when a person has unlawfully and with force entered, or was attempting to enter, your occupied habitation, vehicle, or place of business or employment.
Taylor’s analysis was that, “the Castle Doctrine requires that the entry be unlawful. In this case, the police had obtained a warrant and thus had a legal right to enter the property by any means they deemed necessary, such as by executing a no-knock warrant.” This means that the homeowner does not get the advantage of the Castle Doctrine (namely, that his use of deadly force is presumed reasonable) and we must analyze the reasonableness of his deadly force as though he were not in his “Castle.”
- Did the homeowner know that the person crawling through his window at 5:30 AM was a peace officer?
To summarize, the no-knock entrance was legal, and the Castle Doctrine does not apply. The defense can only effectively argue the remaining option; that the elements of the crime of capital murder have not been met, and that the use of deadly force was reasonable and justified.
There is no question that the officers were acting in the lawful discharge of their duties. So the only issue that can negate capital murder lies in whether or not the homeowner knew, or should have known, that it was a peace officer coming through his window. In other words, a “mistake of fact,” in which the homeowner believed it was your run-of-the-mill intruder slipping through the window that morning.
What are the facts to be considered? Things like whether the police officer identified himself as he slipped into the home, were there police lights or sirens outside, was the police officer wearing anything that had POLICE written on the front.
Taylor explained that “a mistake of fact needs to be both honest and reasonable.” She elaborated that “honest” means he really didn’t know the man was a peace officer, and “reasonable” means an ordinary and prudent person in the same situation would not have known the man was a peace officer.
If the jury believes he committed an honest and reasonable mistake of fact as to the man’s identity as a peace officer, and that he used deadly force based upon his reasonable belief that it was immediately necessary to defend himself from a burglar/home invader, then he did not commit capital murder.
Ultimately, this comes down to whether or not the jury of 12 random people believe that he didn’t know it was a police officer entering his home.
Taylor concluded by saying, “Whether or not the homeowner can succeed, and avoid both the death penalty or a life sentence without parole, will depend entirely on the evidence presented, and the jury sitting in front of him that day.”
If you want to learn more about the legal factors affecting gun ownership, attend a Texas Gun Law Seminar. Click here to see the full schedule of events in the state. Click here to register for the next gun law seminar (Surviving an Active Shooter) to be held July 26 at Defender Outdoors Shooting Center, 2900 Shotts St., Fort Worth, TX 76107. Click here to register for an August 30 seminar covering new gun laws.