In the wake of a tragedy in Florida, a Democratic lawmaker from Poulsbo hopes to clarify the law here.
Washingtonians could face new rules for self defense, including a duty to retreat if possible, under a bill proposed in advance of this year's legislative session.
The bill, HB 1012 sponsored by Rep. Sherry Appleton, D-Poulsbo, would make two changes to Washington's justifiable homicide law, which regulates the use of deadly force. First, it would make deadly force only justifiable if a safe retreat were impossible. Second, it would remove language allowing homeowners to kill simply to defend their property. Instead, under the proposed law, killing would be legal only if the intruder posed an immediate physical threat to a person.
Even Appleton says the bill will have a hard time in the upcoming Legislature. But she is tackling an area where events elsewhere, particularly shootings in Florida, have raised exactly the issues Appleton hopes to address.
With hundreds of cases where self-defense is claimed every year, and up to a dozen where justifiable homicide is considered, the bill would definitely have an effect, said Ian Goodhew, deputy chief of staff at the King County Prosecutor's office.
"It would be a substantive change," Goodhew said.
Currently, Washington is in a gray area compared to states with clear Stand Your Ground laws. In those states, Goodhew said, the law specifically says a person being attacked does not have to retreat, and is justified in using violent force even if a possible safe retreat exists. In Washington, the law does not address whether a person must consider retreat in the face of an attack. Instead, juries in self-defense trials are often simply reminded that defendants are not obligated to try to avoid using force by retreating.
The bill would also have an effect on many cases even before they went to trial, Goodhew said. Today, when deciding whether to charge someone claiming self-defense, prosecutors consider not only the justifiable homicide statute but the principle of proportionate force, which holds that deadly force is not justified in preventing a property crime. The two, however, don't always agree, as the current justifiable homicide law allows deadly force against burglars, even if they don't pose an immediate physical threat to any person.
By adding the requirement of a threat of injury to the homicide law, Goodhew said, the bill would remove some ambiguity from the decision.
Appleton, originally from Florida, said she was motivated to propose the law by the killing of Trayvon Martin in her home state, and his killer's subsequent invocation of Florida's Stand Your Ground law. In the still-unresolved case, Martin's killer claimed self-defense after he approached Martin and followed him down the street, confronting Martin despite being told by dispatchers not to. The teenage Martin was unarmed.
"It just broke my heart for that young man," Appleton said. "If you put yourself into that position," she said of Martin's killer, "you shouldn't be able to just shoot somebody. It's called common sense."
While the bill contains no references to firearms or any type of gun control, Appleton acknowledged it was in large part aimed at curbing gun violence, since guns are the most common method of deadly self-defense.
A gun gives its owner the power to do serious damage, Appleton said. Rather than restrict gun ownership, Appleton said she wants to make sure the power comes with a responsibility to think about how to avoid using it. When faced with a potentially violent situation, Appleton said, "it's about looking for an alternative. To me that makes sense."
Even before Christmas, Appleton said, she had received a handful of phone calls in opposition to the bill. Appleton, first elected in 2004, said she had never started getting calls on a bill so soon after it had been submitted, well before the Legislature started its session and even before a digest summarizing the proposal had been published.
With no co-sponsors yet, Appleton said she's not even sure the bill will make it to a general vote. If it does, she said, she expects a fight.
The state Senate could be a particular stumbling block. Under Sen. Rodney Tom's Republican-breakaway-Democrats plan for Senate leadership, the chairman of the Law and Justice Committee would be Republican Sen. Mike Padden of Spokane, who received a National Rifle Association rating of A-plus. Padden's office said he did not have any immediate comment.