Most people definitively would be very upset when seeing his/her property being vandalized or stolen and the reaction would range from simply shouting to even using deadly force or simply being afraid. Under US law people have the right of defending their property, but it is not clear for me what would constitute the "defending".

What is the farthest extent that one could go to defend property, when no life was in danger?


1 Answer 1


There isn't a national answer, but every state has laws that set that limit – there is a lot of variation. California defines and criminalizes homicide in the penal code here, and section 195 starts setting forth circumstances where homicide is excusable. 197.2, for example, includes when

committed in defense of habitation, property, or person, against one who manifestly intends or endeavors, by violence or surprise, to commit a felony, or against one who manifestly intends and endeavors, in a violent, riotous or tumultuous manner, to enter the habitation of another for the purpose of offering violence to any person therein

The jury then has to decide if the facts match the various conditions enumerated throughout the criminal code as justifications, so there are specific instructions that the judge reads, given here. (This is a generic self-defense instruction, not just aimed at homicide). They are told that the accused "may use reasonable force to protect that property from imminent harm", and that reasonable force is "the amount of force that a reasonable person in the same situation would believe is necessary to protect the property from imminent harm". So if the prosecution cannot prove "beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant used more force than was reasonable to protect property from imminent harm", they are supposed to acquit. Now, suppose that you're sitting at a sidewalk cafe and some passing perp reached for your cell phone on the table. Blowing off his head would be an unreasonable degree of force.

There are additional instructions aimed at specific situations, such as the right to eject a trespasser that allows you to use reasonable force to eject a trespasser who refuses to leave, and again that degree of force is whatever the reasonable man would do in the circumstances that the victim reasonably believed existed (regardless of whether there was an actual threat). Deadly force is specifically allowed in self-defense against a "forcible or atrocious crime", which includes robbery. This does not include deadly force to prevent vandalism.

You will have noticed that it comes down to the jury making a subjective judgment call as to whether the degree of force used was beyond what the hypothetical "reasonable man" would use.

To clarify in response to the comment, the thing that all of the justified force defenses have in common is that the force be reasonable in order to stop the aggressor. If you can (safely) stop the vandal by smacking him once, but it would be satisfying to turn him into paste, you have to remain unsatisfied. Individuals can use force in defense of self or property, but only the law can use force punitively (and as I assume you know, that never includes beating a person up).

  • @GabrielDiego From this answer it seems that with the person who spray paints your house, you could only beat them up just enough to get them to stop. So if you come running towards them and they stop right away, you probably can't even hit them once. Commented Jul 18, 2016 at 16:48

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