Kyle Rittenhouse testifies on North Dakota self-defense bill
Prosecutors and a defense attorney argued the bill could create unintended consequences.
BISMARCK — Kyle Rittenhouse, whose murder trial and acquittal in the killing of two men during civil unrest in Wisconsin gained him national attention, is backing a North Dakota bill that would afford restitution to violent crime defendants found not guilty because of self-defense.
But prosecutors and at least one defense attorney say the bill could have unintended consequences.
The 20-year-old testified remotely on Tuesday, March 28, during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in favor of House Bill 1213.
If passed, the legislation would allow courts to order the state to reimburse a defendant for “all reasonable costs incurred in defense” against a violent crime if the defendant is acquitted after claiming self-defense. That would include loss of wages and attorney's fees.
“The intent behind what is being referred to or known in other states as 'Kyle's Law' is to prevent the acquitted from losing everything they have worked their entire life for,” Rittenhouse said during the hearing. “It would also allow their life to be restored as much as possible.”
Rittenhouse was found not guilty in a murder trial after killing two men and injuring one during civil unrest in August 2020 in Kenosha, Wisconsin. The riots started after police shot Jacob Blake, a Black man.
Rittenhouse, who was 17 years old at the time of the shooting, claimed he was asked to come to Kenosha from his home in Antioch, Illinois, to protect a car dealership during the civil unrest. He asserted that he was "vicously attacked" and used his AR-15 style rifle in self-defense. Prosecutors in the case alleged he was an instigator who provoked violence before shooting three men.
The November 2021 trial was broadcast across the nation. Rittenhouse faces two civil lawsuits connected to his case.
Rittenhouse has backed similar legislation in other states. In North Dakota, he asserted that HB 1213 would protect innocent people who are forced to defend themselves in violent situations.
He said the bill would offer "checks and balances," forcing prosecutors to pause and gather all the facts in a case before filing charges.
The bill's sponsor, Rep. Nico Rios, R-Williston, said defendants lose in various ways, even if acquitted.
"I don't believe the woman who has been a victim of domestic abuse for years and finally decides to buy a gun for self-defense should have to worry about going bankrupt, or worse, going to prison for defending her life and the lives of children," he said during the hearing. "How many of us here have a gun for self-defense at home?"
It's unclear how many cases in North Dakota have ended in acquittals because of self-defense, Rios acknowledged, but he said it's a bill in the right direction.
Prosecutors in North Dakota have voiced opposition to the bill, noting potential costs and the chilling effect of bringing forth criminal charges. It may prevent attorneys from wanting to become prosecutors, said Jonathan Byers, a lobbyist for the North Dakota State's Attorney's Association.
Ward County State's Attorney Rozanna Larson challenged claims that prosecutors made decisions based on political motivation. A prosecutor could face disciplinary action that could result in losing their license if they pursue criminal charges that they know are not supported by probable cause, said Jeremy Ensrud, a North Dakota assistant attorney general who previously worked as a prosecutor in Ward County.
"I don't know any prosecutor who's going to go to law school, take out the six figures in debt that we all did and put their license on the line just to try to go after someone who's not guilty," he said.
It's unclear how much reimbursements would cost the state. Rios suggested state's attorney's offices would be on the hook.
Ensrud said he fears the bill could cost counties hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Steve Fischer, a criminal defense attorney from Bismarck, said the bill leaves a lot of unanswered questions on how the courts should implement the law, including how to make a finding of self-defense.
"This proposed law as written would create enormous procedural headaches for any judge attempting to administer it," he said in opposing the bill.
Prosecutors have the burden to prove a defendant is guilty, while defense attorneys focus on reasonable doubt, he said.
The bill could put the burden on defense lawyers to prove a client is innocent and that they acted in self-defense instead of saying it is "reasonably plausible that my client acted in self defense," Fischer said.
The House approved HB 1213 in a 50-40 vote. The Senate and its judiciary committee have not voted on the bill.