The source of this month’s discussion with our Network Affiliated Attorneys is Network members expressing concern about their best course of action if, despite their best efforts to avoid violence-ridden areas, they are caught in traffic during a riot and threatened while in their car. To help our members strategize and act in legally defensible ways, we greatly appreciated our Affiliated Attorneys’ comments on these questions–
What legal repercussions would result if an innocent motorist, threatened by a mob they see harming motorists pulled from cars or threatened directly by a violent attempt to break into their car while they are inside, drives deliberately through the area with flashers and horn active but hits and injures a person as they attempt to drive to safety?
How does the motorist’s responsibility change if the person hit is actively involved in the rioting or if it is another innocent person also attempting to get out of the danger area?
Does the motorist’s responsibility change if they hit a protestor blocking an onramp, offramp or city street who is not immediately threatening violence against them or other drivers? What, if any, role does fear of being blocked in and later harmed contribute to justifying a motorist endangering the lives of pedestrians blocking roads or freeway ramps during violent protests?
John R. Monroe
John Monroe Law, PC
156 Robert Jones Road, Dawsonville, GA 30534
In my state (Georgia), an attack on a motor vehicle is treated the same under the law as an attack on a home. A violent attack on a vehicle authorizes the use of deadly force on the attacker. So, the motor vehicle itself could be used as a weapon against the attacker. But force is not authorized against third parties who are not part of the attack. Furthermore, a person does not have authority to use force (deadly or otherwise) against someone who is blocking a public roadway, at least not in a self-defense context. A person does have authority to make a citizen’s arrest of someone blocking a roadway, and to use force (but generally not deadly force) to make that arrest. But using force to abate the crime is not the same as using force to make an arrest.
A fear of later harm does not justify present use of force. Self defense is allowed to prevent imminent harm, not harm at a later time.
Randy L. Robinson
Attorney at Law
PO Box 682, Augusta, ME 04330
In Maine, you can use deadly force if you have a reasonable fear that you are about to be killed or subjected to great bodily harm. Fear of being blocked in would not justify doing something that can be deadly.
You can also act to keep someone else from being killed or subjected to great bodily harm. Just make sure you do not hurt or kill an innocent bystander.
Marc S. Russo
25 Plaza Street West Apt 1-K, Brooklyn, NY 11217
The answers to all of your questions are heavily dependent on the law of the state the hypothetical motorist is in at the time. There would—even in self-defense friendly states—always be the issue of "imminent danger" which would be a jury question. Meaning, that even if the law is friendly and reasonable, your jury pool may not be if the incident occurs in an urban area. For example, Missouri law might help you, but some St. Louis jurors may still want to fry you. You'd still have issues of negligence and liability for any non-violent demonstrators hit, even if the motorist was fleeing a dangerous mob. At least in a negligence situation your insurance company would provide a legal defense and indemnity (of course only up to the policy limit). But in an intentional self-defense situation they wouldn't provide liability coverage, and—depending on the company—possibly not even a defense. If the motorist has the technology, he should try to record the event and document any damage to the vehicle.
Thomas F. Jacobs, Esq.
271 North Stone Avenue, Tucson, AZ 85701
What legal repercussions would result if an innocent motorist, seeing rioters harming others pulled from cars or threatened directly by a violent attempt to break into the car they are in, drives deliberately through the crowd with flashers and horn active but hits and injures a person while attempting to drive to safety?
This question, like the questions that follow, presents a hypothetical situation that is drawn from real life events reported by the media, observed by citizens and/or caught on video. From the standpoint of criminal liability, this scenario presents the all-encompassing fact question: Would a reasonable person in the same situation believe he/she was in danger of serious physical injury or death? In Arizona, as in most if not all states, a motor vehicle is considered a dangerous instrument for purposes of analyzing criminal liability. From the standpoint of civil liability, this scenario presents the question: Did the person causing the injury owe a duty of care to the person injured and did he/she breach that duty? In Arizona, which is a contributory negligence venue, the actions of the injured party may be considered as contributing to or causing their own injury.
Looking at the question from a criminal perspective and asking, “What would the legal ramifications be?” we can state that it is POSSIBLE the driver in this scenario might be charged with aggravated assault with a dangerous instrument. Arizona, however, like most if not all other states, offers relief from criminal liability in certain situations where a person may be justified in committing what otherwise might be considered a criminal act. The questions pretty obviously arise from recent incidents in which a police vehicle was driving through a protest/riot scene with flashers and horn, and struck a pedestrian, and the same occurred in Visalia, CA, involving civilians in a Jeep who were pelted with water bottles before attempting to drive through a crowd. Notably, in the first situation, the vehicle was seen starting and stopping to avoid people standing in front of it, then driving quickly forward after someone climbed or attempted to climb onto the vehicle. In the second situation, the occupants of the Jeep (who will apparently not be charged with a criminal violation) were pelted with water bottles by members of a crowd blocking the road.
No criminal charges were filed against the driver in either of the above real-life incidents, although the Detroit incident is still technically under review. The Tulare County DA has declined charges against the driver of the Jeep. In each case, the prosecutor has discretion to charge or not charge a criminal offense. The decision may depend on the policies of the assigned prosecutor’s office, the facts surrounding each incident, and to some extent the political atmosphere of the venue where the incident took place. In the scenario presented by the question, it seems that a reasonable person would fear for his/her safety and would be justified in driving through. Ultimately, citizens or police acting reasonably under any circumstances should not expect to be prosecuted for their conduct.
Victims of so-called hit-and-run incidents are free to assert a civil claim against the driver of the vehicle, even if criminal charges are not filed. The standard of proof for a civil claim is less than for a criminal claim. However, rioters or protesters who illegally block traffic and then deliberately place themselves in front of moving vehicles in an area where vehicles are being “attacked” are not likely to garner much sympathy with a jury. This kind of conduct is akin to that of so-called “gypsy” personal injury fraudsters, who deliberately cause cars to hit them in order to collect a settlement from insurance. Contributory negligence would certainly play a role, as with the person seen pushing the police SUV from the front in the Detroit video. It was obviously dangerous for the pedestrian to engage in that conduct, and a reasonable person would not see that conduct as necessary or prudent. Therefore, the pedestrian would bear most if not all of the responsibility for any injury he may have suffered.
How does the motorist’s responsibility change if the person hit is actively involved in the rioting or if it is another innocent person also trying to get out of the danger area?
A person who is engaged in some form of “rioting” is still a person, and usually cannot be subjected to use or threatened use of deadly force simply because he/she is behaving badly. However, once he/she threatens or takes harmful action against another person, those actions may justify a response that might include deadly force or other reasonable action offered in defense of person. In the case of a rioter, if that person is actively the conduct described in the hypothetical. In the case of threatening or harming the driver or driver’s vehicle, it is highly unlikely that criminal charges would result from an innocent pedestrian, the same would likely hold true unless the driver drove in a reckless or intentionally dangerous manner in trying to avoid the riot. However, the innocent pedestrian would have a civil claim against the driver, and the rioter as well.
Does the motorist’s responsibility change if they hit a protester blocking a roadway who is not immediately threatening violence against them or other drivers? Does fear of being blocked in and later harmed justify driving through and endangering persons blocking roads or freeway ramps during protests?
This last scenario presents the most likely or common circumstance. Drivers on a roadway are not permitted to run over or strike pedestrians blocking their path. Even where a pedestrian is illegally in a roadway (such as a common jaywalker), civil or criminal liability may arise if a vehicle is driving negligently such that the collision could have been avoided by the driver (civil) or where the driver conducts a vehicle in a reckless or intentionally dangerous fashion and cause injury (criminal). Thus, in both the criminal and civil context, the law asks whether the driver acted reasonably to avoid causing the injury. The question also presents a hypothetical if the driver becomes concerned about possible future injury or threat caused by the crowd. That would depend on the individual circumstances and threats actually presented to the driver and passengers (if any). Threats may develop rapidly, and witnessing a hostile act may justify defensive action, such as driving through a crowd. In most cases, what prosecutors will support as criminally prohibited is intentionally or recklessly driving through a crowd of protesters in an effort to disrupt the event or cause harm.
A big “Thank You!” to our affiliated attorneys for their very detailed contributions to this interesting discussion. We got so many great responses that we will carry the second half over for publication in next month’s journal. Please return next month for more discussion from our affiliated attorneys on this timely topic.
To read more of this month's journal, please click here.