“A man who police said was burglarizing a shed behind a Dallas home was fatally shot after being confronted by the homeowner,” according to Fox4 News. Police said this happened just before 11pm. Police were called our for a welfare check and found a man shot to death inside a car that had crashed into another vehicle. They followed the blood trail back to the home of Luis Solis-Cuevas and determined that Solis-Cuevas had shot the burglar. Strangely the police then decided to arrest Mr. Solis-Cuevas and charge him with manslaughter for “recklessly” firing his gun.
This makes little-to-no sense. Let’s start with Mr. Solis-Cuevas’s obvious defense: defense of property.
Defense of Property
Texas law permits an owner in lawful possession of property to use force to protect that property if the owner reasonably believes force is immediately necessary to prevent or terminate another’s trespass or interference with the property. The owner can use deadly force to protect the property when they reasonably believe deadly force is immediately necessary to prevent the other’s commission of arson, burglary, robbery, aggravated robbery, theft during the nighttime, or criminal mischief during the nighttime as long as the owner reasonably believes the property can’t be protected or recovered by other means or if using of non-deadly force would expose the owner or someone another to substantial risk of death or serious bodily injury. An owner is even allowed to use deadly force to prevent someone who is fleeing immediately after committing burglary, robbery, aggravated robbery, or theft during the nighttime from escaping with the property.
So if Mr. Solis-Cuevas discovered the man in his shed just before 11pm (nighttime) committing, about to commit burglary or theft and Mr. Solis-Cuevas reasonably believed deadly force was immediately necessary to prevent the crime, his actions were legally justified. Even if the man was running away with his property, Mr. Solis-Cuevas would’ve been legally justified to shoot the man in the back if he thought the property couldn’t be recovered any other way or that trying something less than deadly force would put him or anyone else in risk of death or serious bodily injury.
Defense of property clearly seems to apply here, but that’s not the only oddity here. Let’s also look at the police’s chosen criminal charge, manslaughter.
In Texas, a person commits manslaughter if they recklessly cause the death of an individual. Under Texas law, a person acts recklessly with respect to circumstances surrounding his conduct or the result of his conduct when he is aware of but consciously disregards a substantial and unjustifiable risk that the circumstances exist or the result will occur. The risk must be of such a nature and degree that its disregard constitutes a gross deviation from the standard of care that an ordinary person would exercise under all the circumstances as viewed from the actor’s standpoint.
Putting aside the question of whether Mr. Solis-Cuevas was legally justified to shoot the burglar, manslaughter as a charge doesn’t make any sense. Recklessness applies to the action that caused the burglar’s death (the shooting of the gun). Assuming Mr. Solis-Cuevas meant to shoot the gun at the man, his decision to shoot was intentional, which would make the proper criminal charge murder (murder is intentionally or knowingly causing the death of another). If Mr. Solis-Cuevas intended to just wound the burglar by shooting him but ended up killing him instead, the correct charge would still be murder (murder also includes intending to cause serious bodily injury and committing an act clearly dangerous to human life that causes the person’s death).
This case brings to mind the Amber Guyger murder case (the killing of Botham Jean in his own apartment). In that case there was also a discussion over whether the shooter’s actions were reckless and should amount to a manslaighter charge or intentional and should result in a murder charge. In that case the prosecution properly decided that the correct criminal charge was murder because the shooter’s causing of the death – by shooting a gun at him – was intentional, knowing, or at least an act clearly dangerous to human life. Then it’s the jury’s job to decide if a defense of justification (in that case self defense, in this case possibly defense of property) would apply.
Misapplication of the Law
The police’s decision to arrest Mr. Solis-Cuevas for manslaughter because he “recklessly” fired his gun is baffling. Obviously all the facts have to come out, but based on what’s released thus far I cannot see how manslaughter would ever be the proper charge. This feels like a continuation of a disturbing trend. Amber Guyger was also initially charged with manslaughter. Police felt like her decision to shoot was reckless, so they charged her with manslaughter. But the decision is not what determines the charge, it’s the mental state (intentional, knowing, reckless, negligent) behind the action (to shoot). When someone intentionally shoots to kill another believing that by doing so they’re defending themselves, their home, or a third party, if they are going to be criminally charged, the proper charge is murder because the causing of the death was intentional. If the police believe that shooting to kill wasn’t immediately necessary under the law, that’s an argument over whether the shooter has a justification defense like self defense or defense of property. You don’t mismash the intent with the defense and say the shooter’s actions in some nebulous sense were reckless so they’re being charged with manslaughter.
This is going to have to play out. Personally I don’t see how defense of property isn’t going to be a problem in any prosecution of Mr. Solis-Cuevas, but we shall see. My bigger concern from a broader standpoint is the misapplication of the law in such a serious context.