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Deadly force bill offers 'terrible public policy' and gets thumbs down from ND Senate committee

BISMARCK—A North Dakota Senate committee voted against a bill that officials representing North Dakota prosecutors and defense attorneys said Monday, Feb. 6 would justify the use of deadly force against people committing minor property crimes.

But the West Fargo lawmaker who proposed the legislation said it would only allow property owners to use deadly force if they're in fear of serious injury or death.

Senate Bill 2315, introduced by Sen. David Clemens, R-West Fargo, was given a unanimous "do not pass" recommendation after a hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee Monday morning, said committee Chairman Sen. Kelly Armstrong, R-Dickinson. Jackson Lofgren, president of the North Dakota Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said it would give a "green light" to shoot somebody who is running down the street after stealing $10 worth of Christmas decorations.

"This would create a real hurdle to prosecution for someone who pulls a gun on somebody else because they think they might have stolen some small piece of personal property," he said. "And because of that I think it's just a terrible law."

Clemens, a freshman lawmaker, said the bill was introduced at the request of North Dakota residents who "wanted more clarity concerning the defense of themselves involving home and property."

The bill provides legal justification for using deadly force if a person believes it's "immediately necessary" to stop someone who's about to commit a crime such as arson, burglary, robbery, theft and criminal mischief. It also provides that justification to stop someone who is fleeing after committing burglary, robbery or theft.

A person who "reasonably believes" using something other than deadly force to "protect or recover the property would expose the actor or another individual to a substantial risk of death or serious bodily injury" would be justified in using deadly force under Clemens' bill. The legislation also removes the part of state law that says deadly force is not justified if it can be avoided by retreating.

Barnes County resident John Ertelt told the committee that thieves stole $20,000 worth of property from his neighbor on Thanksgiving morning. He was also the victim of a theft four years ago, he said.

Ertelt said criminals should be sent a message that there could be "serious consequences" for their crimes.

"I think we need to stiffen up the laws to protect the private property owners so that he or she knows the latitude they ... may have or may not have in stopping these thefts," he said.

Christopher Dodson, executive director of the North Dakota Catholic Conference, used a moral argument against the bill. He said it would "allow intentional killing even when it is not necessary."

Aaron Birst, executive director of the North Dakota State's Attorneys' Association, said current self defense laws are adequate. He said if a person's life is in danger, they are authorized to use deadly force. A person would be required to leave if they could do so safely before using deadly force, but they would have no duty to retreat if they're in their home.

"This is talking about small, misdemeanor offenses that you are authorized to use deadly force," Birst said of the Clemens bill. "That's terrible public policy."

John Hageman

John Hageman covers North Dakota politics from the Forum News Service bureau in Bismarck. He attended the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, where he studied journalism and political science, and he previously worked at the Grand Forks Herald and Bemidji Pioneer.  

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