Citation. Brown v. Martinez, 68 N.M. 271 (N.M. 1961)
Brief Fact Summary.
Brown (Plaintiffs) brought an action for injuries sustained when shot while stealing watermelons. The District Court for McKinley County (New Mexico) ruled in favor of Martinez (Defendant), the property owner. Plaintiffs appealed.
Synopsis of Rule of Law.
There is no privilege to use any force calculated to cause death or serious bodily injury when only property is threatened.
The property owner shot and injured Plaintiff when he and several other boys had trespassed onto the Defendant’s land to steal watermelons. The Defendant testified that he only intended to scare the boys when he fired the rifle. Upon firing the weapon, however, he struck one of the fleeing boys in the back of his left leg causing considerable injury.
Was the use of a firearm to prevent trespass or theft a reasonable one?
As there was no proof that Defendant was at any time in danger, the degree of force he employed was unwarranted and unlawful. The case was remanded with instructions to set aside the original dismissal and to determine appropriate damages.
The central issue with regard to the use of force is always reasonableness, which is usually a question reserved for a jury. Certain precepts are central, however, the first being that the level of force employed must be appropriate to the circumstances. The law has always placed greater value on human life and safety that on property. As Professor Prosser has noted, a “person may use only the force reasonably necessary to overcome resistance and expel the intruder, and if in the process his own safety is threatened, he may defend himself.”