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Self-defense protections increase under bill passed by Assembly committee

Civil and criminal protections for individuals using deadly force to defend themselves would be increased under a bill passed Thursday by a state Assembly committee.

Assembly Bill 69 establishes specific locations where, if a person uses defensive force that is intended or likely to cause death to another individual, a jury must presume the person reasonably believed the force was necessary to prevent death or harm.

The bill, which was approved by a 6-2 vote of the Assembly’s Judiciary and Ethics Committee, would apply when a suspected criminal is illegally entering the person’s dwelling, motor vehicle or place of business when the person using defensive force is the business owner.

“This gives a special place for those instances,” said Deb Smith, chairperson of the State Bar of Wisconsin’s Criminal Law Section. “Before anybody says a word in court, the presumption is there.”

Current law stipulates individuals can use deadly force in cases of self defense, but then if a case is brought against the individual, the individual must prove he or she acted reasonably.

State Rep. Dean Kaufert, R-Neenah, who wrote the bill, said individuals have always been able to protect themselves in their “castle,” this bill just helps define what that means.

“There used to be an old joke that if you shoot him and he’s outside, drag him inside,” Kaufert said. “Your garage, your shed, your workshop; you’re in your backyard working – anywhere that is your dwelling, you should be able to protect yourself and your family.”

State Rep. Gary Hebl, D-Sun Prarie, who voted against the bill Thursday, said the measure is a solution looking for a problem.

“I can use weapons to protect myself when somebody enters my home, breaks in,” he said. “And the instances are very few, but in the instances where that has occurred in Wisconsin, there’s been no prosecution.”

Hebl said he can’t see a district attorney who would be compelled to charge an individual for using self defense under current law. Kaufert said the state shouldn’t take that chance, however.

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“All it would take is one district attorney,” Kaufert said. “We’re trying to make it crystal clear that you have those rights afforded to you to protect.”

The presumption would not apply, though, according to the bill, if the person using the force was engaged in a criminal activity, or was using the dwelling, car or place of business for illegal activity.

Also, the presumption could not be used in cases involving police officers who have identified themselves.

Hebl said firefighters and emergency medical responders should also be included in the exception and he plans to introduce an amendment to the bill stating so. But several Republican members of the committee disagreed, saying there are no circumstances when firefighters or EMT officials enter homes unannounced.

Individuals using defensive force in such cases, according to the bill, also could not be sued by the intruder. State Rep. Jim Ott, R-Mequon, said it helps avoid frivolous lawsuits.

“Even though someone may not be prosecuted for defending themselves in their home, the chances of civil action against them are not nil,” he said. “Someone could break into your home, trip and fall because you didn’t clean up your bedroom, and sue you.”

The Senate version of the legislation, Senate Bill 79, was referred to the committee on Judiciary, Utilities, Commerce, and Government Operations in the Senate and had its public hearing June 2. The committee has yet to consider the bill.

Hebl said he calls the legislation the “shoot first, ask questions” bill.

“Granted, if your life is in jeopardy, I have no problem with that,” he said. “I just don’t want to enhance a person’s ability to just willy-nilly knock somebody off.”

If the bill eventually becomes law, Smith said, it shouldn’t affect how homeowners react in such situations.

“I don’t think in those situations a person’s mind runs to, ‘Gee, what is the law of self-defense? Is it going to be OK for me to shoot?’” she said. “And I don’t think Wisconsinites are sitting at home in their La-Z-Boys, with their handguns waiting for an intruder.”


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