Drunk, angry guy is kicking your front door, but the court decides that YOU are the aggressor?

The Facts

Eugenio Correa (the Defendant) was visiting with his girlfriend.  Her estranged husband, with whom she had separated five months earlier, phoned her, drunk, seeking to see their daughter.  The girlfriend and Correa were about to leave for the evening, and she told him it wasn’t a good time.  Her ex continued to make repeated, and increasingly menacing, phone calls.  At one point Correa shouted “Let him come over and take on a real man.”

The Girlfriend’s Ex was living with his mother at the time, so she called her to ask that he be prevented from leaving, but his mom said he had already departed.  The Girlfriend immediately called the police.

It wasn’t long before he was at her door, kicking and banging on it.  Correa, hearing the noise, armed himself with a handgun and went down to meet the guy at the front door.  His Girlfriend later testified that she heard Correa say, “Man you’re not coming in here, you’re not getting in here.”  She then heard a loud bang, and Correa came back up the stairs to meet her.  He told her that he had shot her ex, claiming that he had “jumped him.”

The Girlfriend went downstairs and found her estranged husband lying in a pool of blood.  (It would turn out that he had been shot through the head.)  She again called the police.  When they arrived, she told them what had happened.

The Trial

When Correa was ultimate brought to trial, he chose a bench rather than a jury trial.  In a bench trial, the judge assumes the “finder of fact” role that would normally be carried by the jury.

A key defense at trial was that the Defendant had acted in justifiable self defense in using force against the man.

The trial court, however, rejected his argument.  Instead, the court found that it was the Defendant, not his Victim, who had been the initial aggressor, and on that basis the Defendant could not justify his use of force as self defense.

The trial court noted that Correa had yelled through the phone to “come on over and take on a real man,” and then later chose to greet him at the front door with a gun.  He opened the door himself, enabling his Victim to gain access to the home’s vestibule.  Collectively, these actions were sufficient to make Correa an aggressor in the conflict, and therefore not entitled to the legal defense of self defense.

The Defendant was convicted at trial of voluntary manslaughter.

The Appellate Decision

The Defendant appealed his conviction.  In an August 1994 decision, Commonwealth v. Correa, 648 A.2d 1199 (PA Superior Court  1994), the appellate court ruled that “the evidence supports the [trial] court’s finding that [the Defendant] provoked and continued the altercation,” and was therefore not eligible to qualify his actions as lawful self defense.  His conviction for manslaughter was affirmed.

Take-Home Message

It may seem to many that if your girlfriend’s estranged husband comes drunkenly banging and kicking on the front door, threatening to kill, a perfectly natural reaction is to arm yourself and confront him to prevent him from entering.  As we can see from this case, however, actions that might seem chivalrous and brave in the moment can easily drive a narrative of provocation and aggression in the cool, calm, 20-20 hindsight of a safe courtroom.

As armed citizens we must always ask ourselves: Could the actions we are considering in self defense be innocently misperceived–or deliberately misrepresented—by the prosecutors and trial judge as provocative?  Could the prosecutors point to the many alternative actions that you could have taken instead, and argue that your use of force was therefore not necessary or justified?  And could these arguments sway the finder of fact, whether that be a learned judge or a novice jury, that your actions were not necessary, and therefore not self defense?

Having the legal right to act in self defense and defense of our families, even if it necessitates killing, is a fundamental human right, and we are fortunate to live in a country that recognizes this to be so.  Nevertheless, the law of self defense is layered with mine fields that can easily take out the poorly informed armed citizen.

Don’t let that happen to you.  Be prepared to win BOTH the physical fight for your life AND the legal fight for your liberty.

Know the Law.

About the Author

Andrew Branca
Andrew F. Branca is a Massachusetts lawyer and the author of the seminal book “The Law of Self Defense, 3rd Edition,” available at the Law of Self Defense website (autographed copies available) and Amazon.com (paperback and Kindle), and many other re-sellers. Andrew just launched his latest product, the LOSD Instructor Program, designed for gun safety, marksmanship and tactical strategy instructors. Be an elite member of the self defense community, understanding your state's self defense laws to a depth even lawyers rarely achieve. Check it out here.   Andrew also gives live, in-person, ~5 hour-long state-specific Law of Self Defense Seminars all over the country. Click here to find a live seminar covering your state's self-defense laws.   Andrew also produces many 4-5 hour online, on-demand state-specific Law of Self Defense training courses. These online classes are enriched versions of the live, in-person state-specific Law of Self Defense Class Andrew gives all around the country. Click here to find an online course for your state. These online classes are priced at $249/HOUSEHOLD. You can learn more details and view the first section of the training class for free (about 30 minutes worth of self-defense law training) by clicking here.

5 Comments on "Drunk, angry guy is kicking your front door, but the court decides that YOU are the aggressor?"

  1. As a layman, the burden of provocation that is placed upon a defendant in a self defense situation has always seemed extremely one sided to me. Lets say a defendant did act in a provocatory manner, and that when their actions are judged by people in a calm safe setting (a world removed from the adrenaline fueled, blood pumping circumstances under which the act took place) they are found to have undoubtedly contributed to the denouement. What of the other party? If the defendant could have acted differently, but provoked the situation. Could not the other party have acted differently also, and not responded to the provocation? Surely it is a two way street. This whole idea of provocation is one that has been floated in the Travon Martin case as well I note. With some arguing that because Zimmerman supposedly acted in such a blatantly racist manner, Martin was entitled to attack him, and that any response by Zimmerman after this act to defend himself should be thus viewed in the harshest light.

    It is very easy to see how many people can use a firearm as a substitute for a pair of balls. And thus equipped, go forward into situations that they would otherwise avoid. Would Zimmerman have exited his vehicle were he not in possession of a firearm? Would the gentleman in the case above have blatantly challenged his rival? You can’t say definitively no. But I think only a dishonest man or a fool would say that the odds of such occurrences would not have been reduced. Perhaps very greatly. I don’t want this to be taken as anti gun. Existence is sacred, and an individual should have a right to defend their own. But that principle does not render false the observation of how people can act when they find in their hands the power a gun conveys.

    • Andrew Branca, Attorney at Law | June 3, 2013 at 3:24 pm |

      Thanks for your comment, vaughanstarr.
       
      As to your point about provocation being a two-way street: self defense involves potentially life-and-death decision making, and in that context it’s only appropriate that society expect we’re going to wear our big-boy pants before we use force, especially deadly force, against another person. Sure, maybe the other guy was equally as provocative–but you don’t have any control of how he chooses to behave. You DO have total control over how YOU choose to behave. The law simply holds you to account accordingly.
       
      As to your point that a person being in possession of a gun makes them more likely to get into trouble, my personal experience has been exactly the opposite. When I began carrying a sidearm more than two decades ago I became LESS confrontational and MORE inclined to back down over inconsequential matters. Indeed, I’ve always taught my students that possessing a gun means that you have to take MORE bad treatment in life, not less. If someone wants to cut in front of you in line at the movie, take that parking spot you’ve been waiting for, or scream obscenities into his cell phone within hearing of your children . . . well, that’s just too bad. Walk away if you don’t like it.
       
      In return for taking all that guff, the law gives you the opportunity to bring to bear sufficient force to save your own life and that of your family in the gravest extreme.
       
      I’m willing to take that tradeoff.

  2. It appears our distinquished jurists have spoken: in the heat of an altercation, you can forfeit your right to self-defense, in which case, your only legal recourse is to surrender to the mercy of your assailant.

  3. Andrew,
    Firstly, thank you for taking the time to reply to my comment. Now to the meat of that reply. As I have already said, I ask these questions as a layman, not as a legal scholar. This fact though does nothing to diminish what I believe to be commonsense observations on human behavior and interaction in conflict situations. On that matter, I don’t believe your reply addressed my question. That being, why is it that only the party that ‘comes out on top’ in an self-defense case, is faced with the burden of whether their actions were provocatory/contributory to the final act of another person being either wounded or killed? Anyone with real world experience in dealing with violent confrontation (and here I most definitely speak with honors from the college of life), will say that in many cases it is, to one degree or another, a two way street, and that, in a high adrenaline fight or flight situation, it is preposterous to place the onus of provocation/responsibility solely upon the ‘victor’. Legally, this certainly seems to occur. But no-one (not even lawyers) has ever accused the law of being sane. The case you cite in your post “When trial courts go stupid on self defense law” I think illustrates perfectly what I am talking about. Here the defendant uses a knife on another mans’ car. Certainly a provocatory act. Indeed many would argue the equal or greater of yelling “come on over and take on a real man,” down the phone at someone as in the case you give above these comments. What happens? In both incidences the victims responded to these provocations and actively sought out confrontation. Had they not both died, but rather killed the other party, it is easy to see how their actions to not turn away, to provoke the conflict further, would have been held against them. Why did pursue a man with a gun when you were under no threat? Would be asked of the first. And why did you make your way to the other gentleman’s house, when you were in no danger and had no other motive for doing so, other than further the confrontation? Of the second. And all rightly so. In the sense that an individual should be held to account for their actions. But that means, BOTH individuals. Not just the one who is still breathing. Which is what I see occurring. I agree with you, big boy pant should be worn. But by both parties. Turn the tables on who lived and died. And the exact same standard would be used against the new ‘victor’. That this would occur, clearly shows that the standard of provocation is being selectively applied.
    On the question of whether owning a gun predisposes you to get into more trouble (or gives you a pair of balls when you would otherwise have none) citing your personal experience does not answer the question of general behavior. I do not want to cast aspersions on your character, indeed, you may very well be an individual who will never over-react. Who will never find themselves beset by a generally crap day, in which you got little sleep the night before, just got reamed out at work, and to top it off, have now had a falling out with your significant other, and then, after all that, you bump into a guy, and a confrontation kicks off. One which, were you sailing in calmer waters, you would have undoubtedly avoided. But…you’re human. And now you are in a high-adrenaline conflict situation. The next day you will undoubtedly berate yourself for your foolishness. But not right now. You may well never experience the like of this Andrew. But I don’t think so, because whether you have a gun or not, everyone experiences something similar to this. Everyone. Denying this fact, hurts people. The best people I have worked with and studied under when it comes to the execution of physical violence on another human being, individuals who stress de-escalation, also acknowledge the times when they completely failed in this. Again, I believe the two cases you cite, which I have brought up already, show this. A man is informed his tires have just been slashed. Without a gun, would he pursue confrontation with a man who obviously has a knife? You cannot say definitively no. But you would have to say the odds are against it. Even if he were similarly armed. Unlikely he would pursue a knife fight, in which he was sure to get cut/stabbed. Similarly, “come on over and take on a real man”, would such a challenge have been offered in the absence of a gun? Given that this individual’s first response was a gun, and not his fists, again, it seems highly unlikely.
    As I stated previously, lest you think I am being less than honest on this point, I am not anti-gun. An individual who would otherwise be largely helpless, should not be prevented by Government from defending their own existence. But pretending that all gun owners are models of self-restraint, even just going by the cases you cite on your own blog, is laughable. I believe that only by throwing light on this problem do we go a long way to addressing it. And that ignoring it, for fear that anti-gun zealots will use this fact against us, ultimately does far more harm than good.

  4. One question I always ask myself in those tense situations is: “How would I react if I didn’t have a gun with me? Would I back off from the situation and not let it escalate?” And the answer is inevitably YES. I would do anything to avoid a confrontation which would lead me to kill someone, self defense or stand your ground.

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