Stand Your Ground Laws and the Right of Self-Defence in Pennsylvania

by Tom Wolpert on December 4, 2013

Nationwide, there have been recently two slayings in which homeowners, believing themselves to be threatened by an intruder, shot and killed someone who turned out to be a non-threatening after-hours visitor to the home.  In one case, the victim was a young woman apparently under the influence of some (disputed) amount of intoxicants, who was looking for help and ringing a doorbell after a nearby auto accident.  In another case, the victim was an elderly man suffering from Alzheimer’s, who believed himself to be delivering the mail at about 4 am and was wandering around in this self-appointed task.


An autopsy has been scheduled for this weekend for a 72-year-old Alzheimer’s patient who was shot after authorities say he wandered into a darkened yard in Georgia, officials in the rural area reported Friday.

Ronald Westbrook had walked about three miles in sub-freezing temperatures, then knocked on 34-year-old Joe Hendrix’s door just before 4 a.m. Wednesday, authorities said.

Hendrix then went into the backyard of the home he rented in the Chickamauga area, confronted Westbrook and fired his handgun four times at the man, sheriff’s officials said. No charges have been filed.

An autopsy is scheduled for Saturday at the Georgia Bureau of Investigation lab in Atlanta, Walker County Coroner W. Dewayne Wilson said Friday in a statement to The Associated Press.

The Walker County Sheriff’s Office requested that the GBI assisted in the investigation, Sherry Lang, spokeswoman for the state agency, told the AP Friday. GBI agents helped to process the scene and are conducting interviews, she said.

Westbrook was lost and confused in the pre-dawn darkness Wednesday, Walker County Sheriff Steve Wilson told reporters at a Wednesday news conference. Dressed in a light jacket and wearing a straw hat, he had wandered for about four hours in the night with his two dogs in wind-chill temperature of around 20 degrees, The Chattanooga Times Free Press reported.

“This one house at the end of the cul-de-sac had a porch light on,” Wilson said. “I tend to think (Westbrook) was drawn to that light.”

Hendrix’s fiance didn’t answer when Westbrook was at the front door, instead calling police. But before deputies arrived, Hendrix went into the backyard and saw Westbrook in silhouette, the sheriff said.

Hendrix told investigators he gave Westbrook several verbal commands, but the man — who has advanced Alzheimer’s — didn’t respond, Wilson said. Westbrook “continued walking toward him after he told him to stop,” the sheriff told reporters at a Wednesday news conference.

Hendrix then fired the four shots, the fatal bullet entering Westbrook’s chest, Wilson said.

“There’s no doubt in our mind that Mr. Hendrix and his fiance felt threatened,” the sheriff told reporters.

However, the sheriff also expressed his view that Hendrix should not have left the house as his fiance stayed on the phone with an emergency dispatcher, who had sent two sheriff’s patrol cars to the residence.

“I believe that he should have stayed inside the home,” Wilson said.

“Did he violate any laws by exiting the home? No, none that we know of,'” the sheriff added.

Renisha McBride, 19, was found dead in the early hours of Saturday morning, from a gunshot wound to the head. Her body lay on the porch of the house in Outer Drive, Dearborn Heights.  Anger is building in the largely African American area of Detroit in which the victim lived, with the family already having compared her death to that of Trayvon Martin, who was shot and killed in Florida in February 2012 by a neighbourhood watch co-ordinator, George Zimmerman, who was later acquitted on manslaughter charges.  Like Florida, Michigan has a stand-your-ground law that allows individuals to use deadly force if they feel their life is in imminent danger or that they are faced with physical harm or sexual assault.It is understood that the homeowner, who has been interviewed by detectives, is claiming self-defence, though it is not known whether he has invoked the stand-your-ground provision.  Relatives of the victim have told local media that Renisha was shot in the back of the head as she turned to leave the porch.   Authorities have confirmed that she was shot in the head, though the suggestion that she was hit from behind is unconfirmed.
“I’m feeling this was racist,” said McBride’s aunt Bernita Spinks, who is acting as a spokesperson for the family.  She told the local Fox TV station, WJBK: “You see this black African young lady, knocking for help. He didn’t even see what kind of help she was seeking.”   Spinks told the Detroit News:   “There was no window broken.  My niece didn’t bother anyone.  She went looking for help and now she’s dead.  ”Dmetria Burnett, McBride’s cousin, said:  “You wanted her dead, that’s my opinion.  You wanted her dead for you to just shoot somebody in the head and not think twice about it.”  According to relatives, McBride had been involved in a crash in her white Ford Taurus, about four blocks away from the house.  Disoriented by the accident, she had been walking through the mainly white neighbourhood, knocking on doors and seeking help.

The family are pointing to the fact that the homeowner did not call 911 as evidence of racial profiling against the teenager. To add to their sense of outrage, police initially indicated to family members that the victim’s body had been dumped on the porch, having been moved from a separate shooting location – a story that was later changed after it was revealed that McBride had been killed at the spot where her body lay.

Racial tension has been a running sore in Detroit and its suburbs for decades, the city having experienced massive “white flight” in the 1950s and 1960s. Detroit proper, where McBride lived with her mother in the north-west of the city, is 83% black, whereas the suburb of Dearborn Heights is 86% white.

McBride recently started working on the inspection line at a Ford car plant in nearby Dearborn. She was educated at Southfield high school.

“She was sweet. She didn’t get into trouble,” Spinks told the Detroit Free Press.

What does Pennsylvania’s Statute Say about these two cases?  

How would they fare under Pennsylvania’s law?  Were the killings “immediately necessary?”  Probably under Pennsylvania law, the homeowners would to be disqualified for the defense on that ground.  When someone invades your home, no matter how mistakenly, whatever action is taken has to be taken immediately.  The “actor” is not obliged to retreat from his dwelling.  Any one attempting to enter the dwelling of another without a lawful justification is presumed to be doing so with the type of intent that would justify the actor’s conduct of (purported) self-defense.  The difference between the two cases is significant though.  In the case in Georgia, the elderly man with Alzheimer’s was walking into the back yard of the homeowner at 4 am.  No homeowner startled and frightened by such conduct at that time of night would find any rational explanation for such conduct, and apparently the homeowner called out and asked the man to identify himself or otherwise respond to verbal commands, but the elderly man did not respond.   In short, unless the Georgia homeowner knew the man had Alzheimer’s or could see his age and condition, the homeowner’s conduct seems consistent with anyone seeking to defend his home.  After all, if the Georgia homeowner had any intention of protecting his home or fiancé, it was better to have the confrontation out in the backyard.  Waiting for the police to come also would mean waiting for the intruder to act, and perhaps invade the home.

The Michigan case is different.  In Michigan, the 19 year old victim was shot on the porch.  There are many reasons why someone might come to your porch, even at night – not the least of which is that the person might need assistance or medical help for any number of reasons.  The homeowner took no steps to see who was on his porch, apparently he fired through the door.  There wasn’t any indication of forced entry – the homeowner did not call 911.   The actor in the Michigan case has been charged with second degree murder, and the charge does not appear to be inconsistent with the facts.  Even a stand-your-ground doctrine requires some basis of belief that one is being threatened, or one’s home is being invaded, and someone knocking on your door, without other facts, cannot reasonably be interpreted so.  There was no attack by the victim on the homeowner, no disregard of questions or instructions from the homeowner, no attempted entry.  Whether or not lesser-included charges will be part of the indictment or criminal information agains the homeowner seems to me to be a very significant question.  I would guess that many juries would hesitate if confronted with all-or-nothing choices: either 2nd degree murder, or walk.  If the jury has the opportunity to render a compromise verdict that entails some serious jail time and a felony conviction, that would be a very plausible outcome.  In Pennsylvania, crimes involving an act of violence using a weapon generally have a 5-year minimum attached – coupled with a Felony 1 conviction, the Pennsylvania sentencing scheme could easily be five to 10 years of state prison time, with a very lengthy period of concurrent probation running for years after, and if such were the outcome, I would describe that as just.   Individuals have a legally protected interest in self defense, but society has an interest in safeguarding people who come to the front door of  a home and knock or ring the doorbell with a legitimate purpose of asking for help.  Shooting someone who rings your doorbell is not an act of self-defense.

For legal questions for Pennsylvania residents, please visit our website.  See  or

18 Pa.C.S. § 505. Use of Force in Self-Protection.
(a) Use of force justifiable for protection of the person.–The use of force upon or toward another person is justifiable when the
actor believes that such force is immediately necessary for the purpose of protecting himself against the use of unlawful force by
such other person on the present occasion.
(b) Limitations on justifying necessity for use of force.–
(1) The use of force is not justifiable under this section:
         (i) to resist an arrest which the actor knows is being made by a peace officer, although the arrest is unlawful; or
(ii) to resist force used by the occupier or possessor of property or by another person on his behalf, where the actor
knows that the person using the force is doing so under a claim of right to protect the property, except that this limitation
shall not apply if:
(A) the actor is a public officer acting in the performance of his duties or a person lawfully assisting him therein or a
person making or assisting in a lawful arrest;
(B) the actor has been unlawfully dispossessed of the property and is making a reentry or recaption justified by
section 507 of this title (relating to use of force for the protection of property); or
© the actor believes that such force is necessary to protect himself against death or serious bodily injury.
(2) The use of deadly force is not justifiable under this section unless the actor believes that such force is necessary to
protect himself against death, serious bodily injury, kidnapping or sexual intercourse compelled by force or threat; nor is it
justifiable if:
(i) the actor, with the intent of causing death or serious bodily injury, provoked the use of force against himself in the
same encounter; or
(ii) the actor knows that he can avoid the necessity of using such force with complete safety by retreating, except the
actor is not obliged to retreat from his dwelling or place of work, unless he was the initial aggressor or is assailed in his
place of work by another person whose place of work the actor knows it to be.
(2.1) Except as otherwise provided in paragraph (2.2), an actor is presumed to have a reasonable belief that deadly force is
immediately necessary to protect himself against death, serious bodily injury, kidnapping or sexual intercourse compelled by
force or threat if both of the following conditions exist:
(i) The person against whom the force is used is in the process of unlawfully and forcefully entering, or has unlawfully and
forcefully entered and is present within, a dwelling, residence or occupied vehicle; or the person against whom the force
is used is or is attempting to unlawfully and forcefully remove another against that other’s will from the dwelling,
residence or occupied vehicle.
(ii) The actor knows or has reason to believe that the unlawful and forceful entry or act is occurring or has occurred.
(2.2) The presumption set forth in paragraph (2.1) does not apply if:
(i) the person against whom the force is used has the right to be in or is a lawful resident of the dwelling, residence or
vehicle, such as an owner or lessee;
(ii) the person sought to be removed is a child or grandchild or is otherwise in the lawful custody or under the lawful
guardianship of the person against whom the protective force is used;
(iii) the actor is engaged in a criminal activity or is using the dwelling, residence or occupied vehicle to further a criminal
activity; or
(iv) the person against whom the force is used is a peace officer acting in the performance of his official duties and the
actor using force knew or reasonably should have known that the person was a peace officer.
(2.3) An actor who is not engaged in a criminal activity, who is not in illegal possession of a firearm and who is attacked in
any place where the actor would have a duty to retreat under paragraph (2)(ii) has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand
his ground and use force, including deadly force, if:
(i) the actor has a right to be in the place where he was attacked;
(ii) the actor believes it is immediately necessary to do so to protect himself against death, serious bodily injury,
kidnapping or sexual intercourse by force or threat; and
(iii) the person against whom the force is used displays or otherwise uses:
(A) a firearm or replica of a firearm as defined in 42 Pa.C.S. § 9712 (relating to sentences for offenses committed
with firearms); or
(B) any other weapon readily or apparently capable of lethal use.
(2.4) The exception to the duty to retreat set forth under paragraph (2.3) does not apply if the person against whom the force
is used is a peace officer acting in the performance of his official duties and the actor using force knew or reasonably should
have known that the person was a peace officer.
(2.5) Unless one of the exceptions under paragraph (2.2) applies, a person who unlawfully and by force enters or attempts to
enter an actor’s dwelling, residence or occupied vehicle or removes or attempts to remove another against that other’s will
from the actor’s dwelling, residence or occupied vehicle is presumed to be doing so with the intent to commit:
(i) an act resulting in death or serious bodily injury; or
(ii) kidnapping or sexual intercourse by force or threat.
(2.6) A public officer justified in using force in the performance of his duties or a person justified in using force in his
assistance or a person justified in using force in making an arrest or preventing an escape is not obliged to desist from
efforts to perform such duty, effect such arrest or prevent such escape because of resistance or threatened resistance by or
on behalf of the person against whom such action is directed.
(3) Except as otherwise required by this subsection, a person employing protective force may estimate the necessity thereof
under the circumstances as he believes them to be when the force is used, without retreating, surrendering possession,
doing any other act which he has no legal duty to do or abstaining from any lawful action.
© Use of confinement as protective force.–The justification afforded by this section extends to the use of confinement as
protective force only if the actor takes all reasonable measures to terminate the confinement as soon as he knows that he safely
can, unless the person confined has been arrested on a charge of crime.
(d) Definition.–As used in this section, the term “criminal activity” means conduct which is a misdemeanor or felony, is not
justifiable under this chapter and is related to the confrontation between an actor and the person against whom force is used.


{ 0 comments… add one now }

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: