Shooting a fleeing car thief isn’t ‘standing your ground’

If you witness a crime, here’s what to do

Witnessing a crime and reporting it can be just as frightening as being the victim of a crime. Here’s what you should do if you witness illegal activity. (Nicole L. Cvetnic / McClatchy)
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Witnessing a crime and reporting it can be just as frightening as being the victim of a crime. Here’s what you should do if you witness illegal activity. (Nicole L. Cvetnic / McClatchy)

Missouri’s “stand your ground” statute is one of the broadest in the nation. But this much is clear: The law does not allow people to use force to protect property unless they reasonably believe their life is threatened.

DeAndre Simms found that out the hard way, unfortunately. The 24-year-old Kansas City man is charged with second-degree murder and armed criminal action for allegedly shooting a man who was trying to steal his car.

That man, Keith A. Michael, 34, had a lengthy criminal history. He had spent time in prison on drug charges and for tampering with a motor vehicle, according to online court records. He shouldn’t be absolved of all blame. His actions ultimately led to his own death, and also put Simms in harm’s way.

And Simms deserves his day in court. The legal system will determine his guilt or innocence.

But gun owners must be aware of the law. If they aren’t, it’s a threat to public safety.

Michael allegedly tried to steal Simms’ car, which Simms left idling while he entered a Kansas City convenience store, just before 3 a.m. on Nov. 29.

Surveillance video shows Simms shooting Michael as Michael attempted to enter the vehicle, according to court documents. Officers found the car stopped in the street with Michael’s body in the driver’s seat. Prosecutors charged Simms last week.

The criminal charges drew immediate criticism on social media.

Michael Mansur, a spokesman for Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker, declined to comment because the case is pending.

By all indications, Simms was a victim as well. He believed he was defending his property. But prosecutors didn’t agree. Shooting into a fleeing car doesn’t meet the standard of standing your ground.

“Not once, not twice, not ever,” said Kevin Jamison, a Gladstone criminal defense attorney and president of the Western Missouri Shooters Alliance.

The best recourse in trying to prevent a car thief from fleeing is to contact authorities.

“That’s why God gave us cellphones and 911,” Jamison said. “Taking a picture of the thief might help.”

In the past, the law required a person to retreat if there was an opportunity to escape a violent confrontation.

That is no longer the case after Missouri implemented stand your ground in 2017. The statute allows a person to use deadly force to prevent seriously bodily harm or death. It also allows self-defense shootings in a public place, such as the convenience store Simms found himself at on Nov. 29.

So why was Simms, a crime victim, charged with murder? One guess is that he admitted under questioning that he knew Michael was unarmed.

“I was defending my property,” Simms told police, after taking the necessary step of contacting authorities to report the shooting.

“The shooter stayed put, which is good,” Jamison said. “It indicates he thought that he was in the right. He spoke to the police; this indicates that he thought he was right. He was not.”

The question of justice in any “stand your ground” shooting can be difficult. The ambiguity of Missouri’s law hampers the ability of suspects such as Simms to assess what is reasonable fear — and what isn’t.

As Jamison said, a person has to be in imminent danger before using any measure of force to defend himself or herself.

Time will tell what the consequences will be for Simms. The deadly encounter is a reminder that proper civilian use of force includes knowing the applicable laws.

Star Editorial Board members Derek Donovan and Mary Sanchez talked with Michael Brown and Kevin Jamison on Wed., March 21, 2018. In this excerpt, the guests discuss access to firearms and changes in attitudes toward their use.

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