Several robbers came to defendant’s jewelry store and threatened defendant. Defendant grabbed his revolver and chased them outside. Defendant fired warning shots in the air and attracted police officers. Plaintiff, a police officer, approached defendant but was shot by defendant. Defendant claimed that he thought the officer was one of the rioters and shot in self-defense.
Where a defendant in a civil action raises self-defense, he must satisfy the jury not only that he acted honestly in using force, but that his fears were reasonable under the circumstances; and also as to the reasonableness of the means made use of.
Defendant was asleep in his bedroom in the second story of his jewelry store. His sister was asleep down the hall. Just after midnight, defendant was startled awake by the sound of men trying to break into his store. He went downstairs to confront them. The robbers used profane epithets, broke some signs upon the front of the building, and then entered the building by another entrance, and passing upstairs commenced knocking upon the door of a room where defendant’s sister was sleeping. Defendant grabbed his revolver and chased them out to the street. Defendant fired warning shots in the air to frighten them away, but they started throwing rocks at him. The shots attracted plaintiff Edwin Raymond, a police officer. Plaintiff approached defendant, claiming that he was an officer and asking defendant to stop shooting. Defendant fired at plaintiff and caused an injury. Plaintiff sued for assault.
Defendant claimed that plaintiff was approaching him in a threatening attitude, and he shot in self-defense as he genuinely believed that he was in danger at that moment.
Procedural issue: Was the trial court correct in directing the jury to find verdict for plaintiff if they believed from the evidence that plaintiff was not assaulting defendant?
Substantive issue: Was defendant’s act in shooting another justified in an act of self-defense if he believed plaintiff was one of the rioters?
Trial court was wrong in not allowing the jury to fully consider defendant’s self-defense claim.
The Supreme Court of Colorado reversed the judgment.
This Court clarified that trial court’s instruction to the jury—the court instructs you that if you believe from the evidence, that, at the time the defendant shot the plaintiff, the plaintiff was not assaulting the defendant, then your verdict should be for the plaintiff—was clearly erroneous.
This Court stated that while considering the evidence for plaintiff, which showed that defendant probably acted wantonly and recklessly, the Court should also acknowledge evidence showing defendant truly believed that his life was in danger at that moment.
Defendant testified that his house was invaded, the robbers were joined by few others when he chased them down the street, they assaulted him with stones, and the officer approached him from the direction of the crowd. All these factors might affect the jury’s determination in defendant’s justification of his action, but the incorrect instruction excluded from the jury a full consideration of the justification claimed by the defendant. This Court believed that given a riot was in progress, and defendant was hit with stones, the jury might have believed that defendant shot Plaintiff thinking he was a rioter and ruled in favor of defendant if the erroneous jury instruction was not submitted.
The Court explained that a defendant in a civil action claiming self-defense, he must satisfy the jury not only that he acted honestly in using force, but that his fears were reasonable under the circumstances; and also as to the reasonableness of the means made use of. In this case perhaps the verdict would not have been different had the jury been properly instructed, but it might have been, and therefore the judgment must be reversed.