CHEYENNE — A major Wyoming law enforcement group came out in opposition to part of a “stand your ground” self-defense bill being considered by the Legislature that would give anyone who claimed to have acted in self-defense immunity from arrest and prosecution.
Wyoming Association of Sheriffs and Chiefs of Police Executive Director Byron Oedekoven said his organization was concerned about the provision. He described an officer showing up at a bar parking lot at 3 a.m. after a fight between two motorcycle gangs during which someone has been killed. If the “stand your ground” bill passed, a suspect who pleaded self-defense might be able to walk away prior to an investigation being conducted.
“One of them says, ‘He came at me with a (weapon),’ Oedekoven said. “My officer is going to have to say, ‘Now that kind of sounds like defensive force, so right off the bat I’m in some trouble because by statute I’m not supposed to arrest him.’”
Oedekoven said his organization could support a codification of Wyoming self-defense protections, which are already outlined in case law, if it did not include the problematic provision.
The Senate gave initial approval of the bill Friday, though with many senators suggesting that they would bring amendments before finalizing it. A Senate committee had approved the measure Thursday, though members expressed far more skepticism about the draft than the House, which approved an almost identical bill earlier that day.
The bill is intended to ensure that state residents would not be prosecuted for using force to defend themselves. It would initially offer automatic immunity to anyone who claims to have assaulted or killed someone in self-defense and would require a judge to find beyond a reasonable doubt that the person had not acted in self-defense before a jury trial would be allowed.
Existing law does not include any blanket requirement that people retreat when attacked and allows individuals in Wyoming to use force in self-defense so long as it is reasonable. However, prosecutors can argue in court that a person overreacted to a perceived threat and should have left the scene rather than escalated, though the onus is on them to disprove that an individual acted in self-defense.
The “stand your ground” measure would bar prosecutors from ever arguing that it would have been reasonable for a person to retreat rather than act against a threat, even if a jury or judge believed that was the more reasonable or appropriate option.
“I can see some scenarios, which I think are very real ... where retreat is the reasonable and prudent cause and ought to be adopted,” said Sen. Charlie Scott, R-Casper.
While the Wyoming Trial Lawyers Association has vigorously argued against several provisions in the bill, noting some would be unique in the nation, only the lone Democratic representative on the House committee supported major changes. But members of the Senate agriculture committee, who were assigned the bill, expressed more concern about several provisions in the measure.
Sen. Curt Meier, R-LaGrange, asked several witnesses who testified in support of the bill whether it would be possible to impose a stronger standard for allowing the use of force than simply that the individual “reasonably believed that the force was necessary,” as the bill currently states.
“If someone punches you in your face, you can’t then draw your firearm and kill that person,” said Wyoming Gun Owner lobbyist Aaron Dorr. “That would not be allowed under this statute.”
There is nothing to indicate that doing so would not be allowed under the statute, which simply says that individuals are immune from prosecution if they use “reasonable defensive force.”
Sen. Paul Barnard, R-Evanston, said that shooting a person who punched you could be considered a reasonable response.
“In my own experience, I know two people — one of them was killed by a single hit and he died, and I know another guy who hit a guy and he died with one hit,” Barnard said.
Chairman Sen. Larry Hicks, R-Baggs, said he worried about the section that required a judge to find conclusively that a defendant had not acted in self-defense before allowing a trial. Hicks asked how an individual could receive a fair trial once a judge had already found beyond a reasonable doubt that they were guilty.
“I think this has the potential to be very dangerous within a court of law,” Hicks said. “It’s a provision we need to take very cautiously.”
Scrapping bill suggested
Wyoming Trial Lawyers Association lobbyist Tom Jubin recommended that the committee scrap the current bill language and build a new one around the instructions given to Wyoming juries in self-defense cases, which describe the law in easily understood language.
“Wyoming has a stand your ground protection and always has,” Jubin said. “These jury instructions have very detailed rules and it’s all really common sense.”
Several members of the committee requested copies of those instructions to review.
Both Wyoming Gun Owners and the National Rifle Association came out in support of the bill. NRA lobbyist Travis Couture-Lovelady said the group’s lawyers had reviewed the bill and believed it was written in the best possible manner for Wyoming, though he could not articulate what that meant or why the unique provisions in the bill — such as the strict immunity section — were good ideas despite not being present in other states.
“I don’t think there’s any difference necessarily in the basic principles,” Couture-Lovelady said. “It’s not like we’ve taken a model piece and sticked it in there.”
Sen. Anthony Bouchard, R-Cheyenne, who sponsored the bill, said that the protections from arrest and prosecution were necessary because by the time a jury acquits someone for using force to defend themselves too much damage has already been done.
“It’s just ridiculous to the public that we have to drag them through these cases and then in the end we’re going to say, ‘Oh the system works,” Bouchard said. “I don’t think so. I think the system’s broken.”
Jubin countered that while advocates of the bill have described it as being necessary to allow law-abiding citizens to defend themselves without undue fear of prosecution, it was far more likely that criminals would use the new statute to escape justice.
“It applies to everyone. It applies to the drug dealers who are having a dispute over their profits,” said Jubin, a criminal defense attorney. “Typically, it’s the evil doers that get charged.”
Sen. Bill Landen, R-Casper, said that while he supported the principle of self-defense he was concerned that his colleagues might be supporting the bill out of symbolic support for “stand your ground,” which has become a popular issue among gun rights advocates, regardless of the bill.
“It’s not just the title of the bill that we’re voting on,” Landen said. “I just want to make sure we’re making good law.”