FARGO - Shooting and killing a petty thief would be legal under a sweeping proposal to relax North Dakota's laws on the use of deadly force, under a bill that Cass County's top prosecutor thinks could lead to "Wild West"-style justice.
Sen. David Clemens, R-West Fargo, is the prime sponsor of the bill to expand the legal use of deadly force in North Dakota to protect property as well as to prevent theft or criminal mischief.
Senate Bill 2315 also seeks to remove a provision in state law holding that deadly force is not justified "if it can be avoided" by "retreat or other conduct involving minimal interference."
Clemens said he is concerned about the increase of violent crime and wanted to make sure the law provided protection for those who use deadly force to protect themselves or family members.
Cass County State's Attorney Birch Burdick said he is worried Clemens' bill is overly lax and could encourage citizens to use violence to deal with minor crimes.
"At first blush, it's eye-opening," Burdick said Tuesday, Jan. 24, the day after the bill was introduced.
Clemens said he does not support taking someone's life through "hasty judgment."
"I still favor people using very good judgment when it comes to stopping a person with deadly force," he said. "But I also feel crime is becoming more prevalent in our communities, and I think homeowners should be reassured that they have every right to defend their home and property."
Clemens' bill would provide legal justification for using deadly force if the person believes it is "immediately necessary" to prevent someone about to commit arson, burglary, robbery, aggravated robbery, theft or criminal mischief.
Under the bill, deadly force also would be legally warranted if the person "reasonably believes the use of force other than deadly force" would result in the substantial risk of "death or serious bodily injury."
Burdick said he is concerned that the bill would significantly expand legal authorization of the use of deadly force.
"I'm not sure what the people sponsoring this bill, what problem they're trying to fix," he said. "There doesn't seem to be any proportionality here."
For example, Burdick said his reading of the bill suggests it would allow a person to shoot someone in the back who was fleeing from a home after stealing a DVD copy of an old movie like "Sleepless in Seattle."
"The way it's written, I see that as lawful," Burdick said. He added later: "What I'm concerned about is drifting conceivably into some 'Wild West' scenarios which don't have proportionality."
Clemens said his bill was not in response to any particular incident, but said he wants North Dakota to have a "castle law" upheld by court decisions, allowing people to use deadly force to protect their families and property.
"If I'm in my home, and there's a guy coming at us, I have no idea what his intent is," Clemens said. "Is he out to harm one of my children, my grandchildren or me? Or is he on his way to the next room to get a TV?"
But Burdick believes North Dakota already provides ample legal protections for using deadly force in self-defense.
"I think we have some pretty good self-defense laws right now," he said.
Clemens isn't convinced, however, and wants the law to send a message to would-be home invaders.
"I think the unlawful public should be fully aware of consequences if you enter somebody's home illegally," he said.