Property Rights? The Path We Are On

Earlier this month, I posted a piece on the riots in Britain, drawing attention initially to a report on one London neighborhood in which the rioters were stopped in their tracks by “hundreds of Turkish and Kurdish men, many armed with broken billard cues,” who “poured into the streets to protect their business and homes from the kind of mayhem that was laying waste to other parts of London”; and then noting the fact that the use of force to defend property was, in fact, illegal in Britain, that these men risked being arrested and sent to prison, and that others in the recent past had suffered that for killing or physically harming burglars and the like.

In that post, I cited Joyce Lee Malcolm’s fine study Guns and Violence: The English Experience, which was published by Harvard University Press seven years ago, and I suggested that it ought to be “force-fed to every member of Parliament.” Someone at The Wall Street Journal caught on, and a few days later Joyce published a piece there entitled The Soft-on-Crime Roots of British Disorder. It is well worth reading. Among other things, this is what she said:

Great Britain’s leniency began in the 1950s, with a policy that only under extraordinary circumstances would anyone under 17 be sent to prison. This was meant to rehabilitate young offenders. But the alternative to incarceration has been simply to warn them to behave, maybe require community service, and return them to the streets. There has been justifiable concern about causes of crime such as poverty and unemployment, but little admission that some individuals prefer theft to work and that deterrence must be taken seriously.

Victims of aggression who defend themselves or attempt to protect their property have been shown no such leniency. Burglars who injured themselves breaking into houses have successfully sued homeowners for damages. In February, police in Surrey told gardeners not to put wire mesh on the windows of their garden sheds as burglars might hurt themselves when they break in.

If a homeowner protecting himself and his family injures an intruder beyond what the law considers “reasonable,” he will be prosecuted for assault. Tony Martin, an English farmer, was sentenced to life in prison for killing one burglar and wounding another with a shotgun during the seventh break-in at his rural home in 1999. While his sentence was later reduced to five years, he was refused parole in 2003 because he was judged a danger to burglars.

In 2008, a robber armed with a knife attacked shopkeeper Tony Singh in West Lancashire. During the struggle the intruder was fatally stabbed with his own knife. Although the robber had a long record of violent assault, prosecutors were preparing to charge Mr. Singh with murder until public outrage stopped them.

Meanwhile, the cost of criminal justice has convinced British governments to shorten the sentences of adult criminals, even those guilty of violent crimes, and to release them when they have served half of their sentence. Police have been instructed by the British Home Office to let burglars and first-time offenders who confess to any of some 60 crimes—ranging from assault and arson to sex with an underage girl—off with a caution. That means no jail time, no fine, no community service, no court appearance.

In 2009, 70% of apprehended burglars avoided prison, according to British Ministry of Justice figures. The same year, 20,000 young offenders were electronically tagged and sent home, a 40% increase in the number of people tagged over three years.

All sorts of weapons useful for self-defense have been severely restricted or banned. A 1953 law, the “Prevention of Crime Act,” made any item someone carried for possible protection an “offensive weapon” and therefore illegal. Today there is also a list of devices the mere possession of which carries a 10-year sentence. Along with rocket launchers and machine guns, the list includes chemical sprays and any knife with a blade more than three inches long.

Handguns? Parliament banned their possession in 1997. As an example of the preposterous lengths to which zealous British authorities would enforce this law, consider the fate of Paul Clark, a former soldier. He was arrested in 2009 by Surrey police when he brought them a shotgun he found in his garden. For doing this personally—instead of asking the police to retrieve it—he received a five-year prison sentence. It took a public outcry to reduce the normal five-year sentence to 12 months, and then suspend it.

As I argued in my earlier post, we are better off in the US. Much to the consternation of the liberals in our midst we actually incarcerate criminals, and, lo and behold, when we started doing that on a large scale, crime went down dramatically. It is worth noting that, the Great Recession notwithstanding, the crime rate is still falling.

But we, too, are going soft, and here is a sign of the times.  On Friday, The Gazette in Colorado Springs, Colorado carried this report.  In response to a wrongful-death suit, a jury in El Paso, Colorado awarded $300,000 to the three-year-old daughter of a young man who was killed in 2009 while burglarizing a used-car lot there.  The owner of the lot, Johan Milanovic, and two of his relatives, who were helping him guard his property were, we are told, “painted as vigilantes who plotted a deadly ambush rather than let authorities deal with a string of recent burglaries” – just as they would have been in Britain.

The three men were accused of keeping an armed vigil over the auto lot and firing on the first burglars they saw. The men were angry over a series of thefts that began when someone broke in a week earlier and stole keys to customers’ automobiles as well as keys to buildings on the property.

Car stereos were taken in the days that followed, according to testimony.

Under Colorado’s self-defense laws, the use of deadly force is justified only under the “reasonable belief” that it’s necessary to prevent serious bodily injury or death. The jury found that none of the men had a legitimate claim of self-defense.

Property rights are not a lawful defense for using deadly force in Colorado, and the state’s so-called Make My Day law, which sets lower standard for using force, applies to households, not businesses.

The “victim” – which is to say, the criminal – and his accomplice were high on metamphetamine and reportedly were in search of money to buy more drugs. The former had knives in his pocket and another strapped to his ankle, but the police report claimed that he “never posed a threat” to Milanovic and his relatives.

As I said in my earlier post, in times like these, it is useful to remember the words of John Adams: “We talk of liberty and property, but, if we cut up the law of self-defence, we cut up the foundation of both. . . . If a robber meets me in the street, and commands me to surrender my purse, I have a right to kill him without asking questions.” We have come a long way since John Adams’ day.

ADDENDUM: Here is an important article on a puzzle, addressing the question why it is the case, if poverty is the chief cause of crime, that the crime rate keeps going down, massive unemployment nontwithstanding.