Laws on Appropriate Use of Force to Protect Private Property

The use of force laws on private property have had a complicated history. There are specific property rights in relation to setting traps to protect one’s property. There have been violent, deadly cases that have helped to set the legal precedent over time. Due to the cases outlined below, setting dangerous traps to catch trespassers is illegal and punishable by law.

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David Reischer, Esq. is an attorney and the CEO of LegalAdvice.com. He graduated law school in 2000 with a joint MBA/JD degree from Brooklyn Law School and Zicklin School of business.  His mission is to provide consumers with affordable access to accurate legal advice. He writes legal articles on a multitude of important legal topics in order to give people expert legal advice to help solve th...

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UPDATED: Jul 15, 2021

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The right to protect one’s property is a fundamental right in the United States. Even more important is the right to protect one’s family home and oneself against personal injury. 

The use of force laws on private property has developed over time.

Being derived from English common law, the Castle Doctrine states that a landowner may use force to protect his property.

The American Castle Doctrine establishes that a homeowner can protect his home from unlawful intruders and may even use deadly force where an intruder threatens bodily harm or death. 

Historically, before modern security systems, property owners often protected their land with booby traps.

Booby traps were an affordable and easy way to protect property because they could be rigged and left on uninhabited property and can inflict injury on unsuspecting intruders. 

Over time, however, intruders began to sue property owners after being injured by booby traps while trespassing. Finding the right legal help can be invaluable during a case like this.

History of Booby Traps

A booby trap is a device set to automatically trigger and harm or kill an unsuspecting animal or person. The device is triggered by the intended victim’s actions and is usually hidden.

The name “booby trap” can be traced to early England. A “booby” means a dumb person or a seabird with flat feet that is slow on land, making it easy to catch. 

Booby traps originated as pranks. Over time, they took on a more sinister connotation after being used in warfare.

During the first World War, booby traps were used to ambush enemies during retreats. The Germans set explosive traps triggered by strings attached to windows at the entrance of shelters and buried hand grenades connected by telephone wire that exploded after touching the wire. 

In the Vietnam War, the Vietcong used a variety of traps, such as hidden pits containing venomous snakes or sharpened bamboo stakes that would impale unsuspecting enemies. 

Outside of warfare, booby traps have been used to protect property. Before modern security systems, traps acted as an inexpensive way to protect property.

A homeowner could rig a doorknob to a gun or strategically place a trap to catch or hurt unsuspecting intruders. These traps often injured or killed trespassers.  

Over time, courts have all but eliminated the right to use booby traps to protect property in order to strike a balance between the right to property and the right to life.  

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Development of Booby Trap Case Law

The right to property is a fundamental right. The right to protect property is also a fundamental right. However, the right to protect property needs to be constantly balanced against the right to life.

Case law has developed over time to strike a balance between these two fundamental rights. 

Katko v. Briney

In Katko v. Briney, the Iowa Supreme Court explored the relationship between property rights and the right to human life. The defendant set up a spring shotgun as a booby trap to protect his uninhabited farmhouse against trespassers. The house had been burglarized over the years by intruders. 

Although the defendant boarded the windows and placed “No Trespassing” signs on the property, break-ins happened frequently. 

The shotgun trap was rigged to a doorknob and aimed to hit intruders in the leg once they entered a bedroom of the house. The plaintiff broke into the house to steal small items from the abandoned house. As he opened the bedroom door, the booby trap went off and shot him in the leg above the ankle.

The plaintiff suffered significant injury to his leg. The plaintiff sued the defendant homeowner for personal injuries he sustained during the trespassing. 

The court contemplated what level of force the defendant is permitted to use to protect the property. There was no threat to safety from intruders at the house because it was uninhabited and not used as a family home.

The court’s main concern with booby traps was that a child or innocent trespasser could be seriously hurt by such a trap.

The court held in favor of the plaintiff, finding that the defendant did not have the right use of force aimed at causing death or serious injury to stop a threat to land unless such force was in reasonable self-defense. 

The court based its holding on the fact that the law generally considers life more valuable than property. Overall, the court held that a booby trap that could injure or kill a trespasser at an uninhabited property is not permissible.

Thus, the defendant was liable to the plaintiff for his injuries, even though the plaintiff was a trespasser. 

People v. Ceballos

Around the same time as Katko, the California Supreme Court explored the same question in a criminal case called People v. Ceballos. In this case, the defendant Don Ceballos lived in a home in San Anselmo. His living space was above the garage, but he sometimes slept in the garage. He kept about $2,500 worth of property in the garage. 

In March 1970, Mr. Ceballos noticed some tools were stolen from his home. Two months later, he noticed his garage door lock was bent and saw pry marks on the door.

To protect the property, he mounted a loaded pistol in the garage aimed at the center of the garage doors.

He connected the pistol to a wire and connected the wire to one of the doors so that the pistol would discharge if the door opened several inches.

The original damage to the lock was done by two boys, a 16-year-old and a 15-year old. The boys returned, unarmed, to the garage after Mr. Ceballos rigged the pistol. As one opened the garage door, he was shot in the face and injured.

A jury found Mr. Ceballos guilty of assault with a deadly weapon.

On appeal, Mr. Ceballos argued that had he been present during the burglary, he would have been justified in shooting the boy. 

The court expressed concern that allowing people to use deadly mechanical devices puts children and emergency personnel, like firemen and police, at risk. A person who brandishes a deadly weapon can use his or her own judgment and decide not to use the device. 

Deadly mechanisms, on the other hand, have no discretion — they are automatic, without mercy, and give no warning. The court affirmed the conviction.

The court held that the defendant was not justified in setting up the booby trap because the burglary did not threaten death or bodily harm since no one but the intruders were on the premises. 

Traps Typically Prohibited to Protect Property

Most states have adopted statutes that prohibit the use of booby traps to protect property. 

These traps threaten everyone in the vicinity, including children, emergency responders, and even the homeowners who may forget they set the trap. 

Most importantly, courts have determined that the law does not allow traps that cause deadly or injurious force to protect property because life is a more valuable right than property. To learn more, find legal help today!

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