Drug Dealers’ Self-Defense Against Other Drug Dealers

The Baton Rouge Advocate reports on an interesting case (thanks to Mike Christensen for the pointer):

Anthony Manzella … and Andrew Robertson … were on one side of an alleged drug deal … and … Johnny Barnes … was on the other side.

Barnes’ companion, Jeral Wayne Matthews Jr. … allegedly struck Manzella[] in the head with a rifle butt before the deal was finished, and Manzella shot and killed Matthews with a .40-caliber handgun, Clinton police said in July….

Twentieth Judicial District Attorney Sam D’Aquilla said he interprets a section of the law dealing with justifiable homicide to preclude self-defense in drug deals that result in a homicide.

I disagree with the DA’s interpretation of the statute, which reads:

A. A homicide is justifiable:

(1) When committed in self-defense by one who reasonably believes that he is in imminent danger of losing his life or receiving great bodily harm and that the killing is necessary to save himself from that danger.

(2) When committed for the purpose of preventing a violent or forcible felony involving danger to life or of great bodily harm by one who reasonably believes that such an offense is about to be committed and that such action is necessary for its prevention….

(3) When committed against a person whom one reasonably believes to be likely to use any unlawful force against a person present in a dwelling or a place of business, or when committed against a person whom one reasonably believes is attempting to use any unlawful force against a person present in a motor vehicle as defined in R.S. 32:1(40), while committing or attempting to commit a burglary or robbery of such dwelling, business, or motor vehicle.

(4)(a) When committed by a person lawfully inside a dwelling, a place of business, or a motor vehicle as defined in R.S. 32:1(40), against a person who is attempting to make an unlawful entry into the dwelling, place of business, or motor vehicle, or who has made an unlawful entry into the dwelling, place of business, or motor vehicle, and the person committing the homicide reasonably believes that the use of deadly force is necessary to prevent the entry or to compel the intruder to leave the premises or motor vehicle.

(b) The provisions of this Paragraph shall not apply when the person committing the homicide is engaged, at the time of the homicide, in the acquisition of, the distribution of, or possession of, with intent to distribute a controlled dangerous substance in violation of the provisions of the Uniform Controlled Dangerous Substances Law.

The provision to which the DA is pointing, (4)(b), pretty clearly limits just (4)(a); that’s what its placement suggests, and my quick search through some other Louisiana provisions suggests that “paragraph” likewise refers just to a subsection and not to the whole section. Even drug criminals are entitled to defend themselves against imminent threats of death or great bodily harm (though likely limited by the well-established principle that one generally loses one’s right to self-defense when one is the initial attacker in the first place) — they just aren’t entitled to benefit from paragraph (4)(a)’s authorization to use deadly force against unlawful entry.

[UPDATE: Commenter PatHMV points out a theory that might work for the prosecution: The Louisiana statute that bars self-defense by someone who is the initial attacker reads (alluded to in the parenthetical above) reads “A person who is the aggressor or who brings on a difficulty cannot claim the right of self-defense unless he withdraws from the conflict in good faith and in such a manner that his adversary knows or should know that he desires to withdraw and discontinue the conflict”; and one could argue that engaging in a drug deal counts as “bring[ing] on a difficulty.” But that doesn’t seem to be the prosecution’s theory, at least according to the article, and it’s also not clear whether simply engaging in an illegal transaction of a sort that may often lead to violence counts as “bring[ing] on a difficulty,” a phrase that is generally used in self-defense law to refer to deliberately provoking someone to fight.]

Still, there’s a broader conceptual issue here as well: To what extent is it proper for the law to strip criminals of the right to self-defense, when they aren’t the initial attacker? Here’s a discussion of this from Perkins v. State, 576 So. 2d 1310 (Fla. 1991):

Is the defense of self defense available for a killing that occurred when both the defendant and the decedent were engaged in an attempt to traffic in cocaine and the decedent was the first to use deadly force? … Under section 776.041(1), Florida Statutes (1987), the defense of self defense is not available to a person who:

(1) Is attempting to commit, committing, or escaping after the commission of, a forcible felony….

… Section 776.08, Florida Statutes (1987), defines “forcible felony” as:

treason; murder; manslaughter; sexual battery; robbery; burglary; arson; kidnapping; aggravated assault; aggravated battery; aircraft piracy; unlawful throwing, placing, or discharging of a destructive device or bomb; and any other felony which involves the use or threat of physical force or violence against any individual.

… The district court below concluded that cocaine trafficking fits [the last clause in sec. 776.08] because of “the propensity for violence inherent in narcotics trafficking.”

Certainly, violence sometimes accompanies narcotics trafficking, as it does many other types of crimes. Yet, contrary to the district court’s conclusion, this fact alone does not place drug trafficking within the letter of the statutory language upon which the opinion under review rests….

Kogan, Justice, specially concurring.

I fully agree with the majority opinion but write separately to express my belief that petitioners’ claim also implicates article I, section 2 of the Florida Constitution. The right to fend off an unprovoked and deadly attack is nothing less than the right to life itself, which this portion of our Constitution expressly declares to be a basic right. Florida’s Constitution states:

Basic rights. — All natural persons are equal before the law and have inalienable rights, among which are the right to enjoy and defend life and liberty. …

This constitutional right, I believe, applies in two different senses. First, petitioners have a fundamental interest in defending their life and liberty in court by mounting a reasonable defense, such as the one they now assert. Second, petitioners had a fundamental right to meet force with force in the field because the initial attack mounted against them by Kimble was illegal and unjustified. Under article I, section 2, the state cannot deprive individuals of this right of self defense without demonstrating a compelling state interest achieved by the most narrowly tailored means….

I do not imply that the state always is precluded from depriving certain persons of the right of self defense. The state clearly has a compelling state interest in disallowing the use of self defense when a person’s own unprovoked, aggressive, and felonious acts set in motion an unbroken chain of events leading to a killing or other injury, with some exceptions not applicable here….

Even in oral argument, counsel for the state admitted he has no evidence substantial enough to rebut Perkins’ claim of self defense on the merits. Yet after making this concession, the state now asks us to turn both reason and law on their heads by heaping total blame on Perkins when Kimble, the initial aggressor, clearly bore the greatest guilt.

In effect, the state has conceded that it can demonstrate no compelling interest in depriving Perkins of the right of self defense guaranteed by article I, section 2….

UPDATE: Note also that the Louisiana Supreme Court has held that the Louisiana constitution secures a right to self-defense, via its right to bear arms provision, though the court did not discuss whether and when the right to self-defense can be forfeited by criminal activity. See McKellar v. Mason, 159 So.2d 700, 702 (1964) (“The Constitutions of the United States and Louisiana give us the right to keep and bear arms. It follows, logically, that to keep and bear arms gives us the right to use the arms for the intended purpose for which they were manufactured.”).