Updated: Oct 27, 2020
Recently we wrote a blog post that questioned whether rioters and/or looters would ever reach your neighborhood. The answer was – probably not! However, outside your home it is at least in the realm of “quite possible”. You could be at work, traveling to other cities, shopping, or just out for a Sunday drive. There is no way to be certain where protesters and their ugly cousins might show up and with no notice to you! It goes without saying that you could innocently be suddenly engulfed in one of those mob scenes. However, for you to purposely head into a “protest” area is indeed foolish!
This post is not a full treatise on all the legalities of defending yourself when you encounter a protesting/looting/rioting situation. We don’t normally write about self-defense tactics. What is offered here are some common sense suggestions for if you find yourself involved in some of this cultural madness.
Defenders must remember that some of these mobs can turn violent and scary if you are anywhere around. However, even though you might be apprehensive, scared or fearful, that alone will not be enough to justify a use of force. Any engagement you have with individuals in one of these highly emotional situations will be judged by the same legal elements as you would face anywhere else. Defenders are not going to be saved by some fear of riot exception. A lot of situations that may arise will be related to damage to buildings, theft, and destruction of property. These circumstances are not the triggers for defenders to use deadly force. Defenders should look to immediate threats that are directed at them personally or other innocents. Justify any actions you take by using the basic five legal elements of self-defense law.
These definitions are not hard and fast and there certainly can be some overlap. It is just a place to start so we know who/what we are talking about.
Protesters. Peaceful protesters are not going to be a problem that will cause you concern or put you in a situation where defending yourself from harm is an issue. The “normal” peaceful protesters usually don’t block traffic, throw rocks, set fires, etc. They typically stand on a sidewalk or designated area with signs and maybe chant some slogan. During the last few weeks, if there were any peaceful protesters around, they were totally crushed by the looter and rioter factions.
Looters. A looters’ primary purpose is to enter or break into private property for reasons of theft. Any violence toward individuals might be incidental. They are generally interested in getting in & getting out with whatever they can carry. They damage or steal property, but usually are not interested in attacking other people or shopkeepers in the store. It is, of course, a possibility that a looter, if threatened by a shop owner or others, could turn violent in response. Looters are usually such nice people anyway, right?
Rioters. Rioters want conflict. They are hell-bent on destruction and mayhem. They attack law enforcement, set fires, and destroy property. These people usually have no allegiance to a protest group or theme. They wait for an opportunity to create chaos. If you run into this group, your safety antennas will absolutely be buzzing.
What if you are in a store and suddenly a group of looters show up? – you are trapped! Of course, you would want to know where the nearest safe exit is. Staying and fighting with multiple people is probably going to end badly.
You have to remember that mere property damage or theft of merchandise is not enough to engage with deadly force. To be sure, getting seriously injured or dying over defense of property is hardly worth it! However, a violent break-in of a building is an unlawful entry and ramps up the threat. Many states (but not all) allow the same defensive rules for an occupied business as allowed for a home. In those states, an unlawful and forced entry gives rise to the reasonable use of deadly force to stop the threat. Those laws are written to protect the people in the building - not the building. If you get trapped in a store with a bunch of looters, it would not be wise to just start shooting over the loss of property. Evaluate the threat to you personally and react accordingly. Your best move – get out!
In contrast to looters, if rioters enter a building where you are, the scene may be quite different. The rioters may attack people and try to destroy the building. Setting the place on fire is obviously arson and a deadly threat to everyone - Run! When and if you believe your life is threatened, react accordingly. Just remember, a future threat or something that might happen is not enough. The threat must be happening now or about to happen immediately. And, if the rioters are attacking an unoccupied building, the rules for the use of deadly force do not apply.
Let’s consider the situation when you are in your vehicle. Two different scenarios may be presented. One, you are only delayed or stopped along your route, but no violence to you or your vehicle is happening. In that situation, be patient, be vigilant, keep windows closed, put on seat belt, and wait for an opening to continue. Aggressively honking the horn, gesturing, yelling, etc. may provoke an unwanted response. Accepting a delay is better than some kind of confrontation.
Two, you get stopped by a mob and they are attacking your vehicle and threatening the safety of those inside the car. The same suggestions would apply as above – except maybe the patience part. If they are shouting, gesturing, beating on your vehicle, and trying to impede your progress, that does not give rise to the use of deadly force. Try rolling your vehicle slowly through the people. Hopefully, the mob will not want to take on a moving vehicle and part the way.
However, when their efforts turn to trying to breach your vehicle, that is a different story. Breaching your vehicle, breaking windows, reaching in, tipping vehicle over, or trying to remove occupants is a deadly force threat. As above, many states, treat an unlawful and forced entry into an occupied vehicle just as if it was your home. In those states, unwanted and forceful entry into your occupied vehicle is a deadly force event. When the breach or destruction of your vehicle become imminent, do what you need to do to get out of the area, but stay in your car. It is your best protection. Stepping on the gas would be the use of deadly force and maybe your only hope of reaching a safe area.
There is bound to be some aftermath that follows some action you took to resolve a threat, especially if there were injuries or deaths. Report what happened to authorities when safe to do so. There will undoubtedly be many videos from cell phones or other video sources. If your actions are called into question, be ready to articulate what was happening, describe the threat, and explain your reasonable response to the threat. Don’t rely on just your feeling of fear to carry the day as a justification. Be specific!
Any of these kinds of situations will be hair-raising, fluid, and likely fast moving to say the least. As situations develop, don’t panic. Be aware, evaluate, set limits on the actions of others, and make decisions that keep you within the boundaries of self-defense law.
As above, the information presented here is not meant to describe detailed tactics for getting out of trouble. Your actions will be circumstance specific. The situations you face may not be clear-cut and obvious. In the quiet time at home, it would be prudent to think about the various situations you might run into and what your legal actions might be.
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