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Castle Doctrine Under Fire During Kaarma Trial

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A Montana state lawmaker says the Markus Kaarma trial is proof that Montana’s expanded Castle Doctrine needs to be repealed.

"It's a terrible idea that has tragic consequences where we see people shooting first and asking questions later with immunity," said Missoula Democrat Ellie Boldman-Hill.

She is talking about the expansion of Montana's "Castle Doctrine," which allows people to use force to defend an occupied structure. It was written by Gary Marbut, a former state lawmaker and president of the Montana Shooting Sports Association. Boldman-Hill says the law goes too far.

"I have no problem, nor do most Montanans, regardless of what side of the isle they sit on, in people using lethal force to defend folks within their own dwelling who are met with lethal force, or met with fear; but that's not what this is," said Boldman-Hill. "Gary Marbut knows it. Gary Marbut's introduced a lot of bills that include putting guns in bars, putting guns on university grounds. I'd love to see the guns at the Griz-Cat game. That's a great idea, Gary Marbut."

Marbut says the problem isn’t the expansion of Montana’s Castle Doctrine; the problem is when the law is used to defend irresponsible behavior. The firearms instructor tells his students if they're accused of killing someone in self-defense, juries will consider several key questions.

"Whether or not their assailant had opportunity, ability and intent."

Marbut says that doesn’t seem to have happened in Kaarma’s garage last April when he shot and killed and unarmed teenager.

"Kaarma could not visualize him, couldn't see him. If he couldn't see him, he couldn't assert the guy as an assailant constituted a serious threat," said Marbut. "If he couldn't see him, how would he know he had the ability to make good on any threat? That is, that he had a weapon, or that there were multiple (of them) or something like that? If he couldn't see him, how could he evaluate any intent?"

University of Montana law professor Andrew King-Reis says the Castle Doctrine only permits deadly force under narrow circumstances.

"The legislature says that you're justified in the use of force likely to cause death or serious bodily harm only if the entry is made or attempted and the person reasonably believes force is necessary to prevent an assault upon the person (or another), or the person reasonably believes that force is necessary to prevent the commission of a forcible felony in the occupied structure."

State lawmaker Ellie Boldman-Hill introduced a bill within 24 hours of the shooting in Markus Kaarma’s garage.

"I leave it to the trial (to determine what happened)," said Boldman-Hill. "I hope justice does prevail, but I do believe the Castle Doctrine and the expansion should be repealed and we can go back to self-defense laws the way that they make sense and people can protect their actual castle, their occupied dwelling, and not their garage and not from a wayward trick-or-treater, or a young boy who was simply garage hopping."

Gary Marbut, who wrote the expanded law Kaarma may cite in his defense, says he's not too worried about Boldman-Hill’s proposal.

"I would say she needs to learn about the law," said Marbut. "The comments that I have seen her make indicate to me that she's doing the same thing that Mr. Kaarma did. She's shooting in the dark and has no clue what she wants to accomplish."

Ellie Boldman-Hill says she’s confident that between a Democratic governor, fellow Democrats and so-called "moderate Republicans", her bill stands a chance in the legislative session that starts next month.

O’Brien first landed at Montana Public Radio three decades ago as a news intern while attending the University of Montana School of Journalism. His first career job out of school was covering the 1995 Montana Legislature. When the session wrapped up, O’Brien was fortunate enough to land a full-time position at the station as a general assignment reporter. Feel free to drop him a line at
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