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Yuma County Sheriff cited in Arizona debate over ‘Castle Doctrine’

Howard Fisher
Capitol Media Services

PHOENIX — The fate of a bill that some have criticized as leading to the shooting deaths of immigrants now rests in Gov. Katie Hobbs' hands.
But it's unclear what the bill would actually accomplish, assuming the governor doesn't veto it.
On paper, HB 2843 simply expands existing laws that allow individuals to threaten to use physical force to stop unlawful entry into a building.
Also known as fortress laws, the law is based on the notion that someone's home is their castle and allows for the use of lethal physical force, but only “in defense of self or a third party.”
Rep. Justin Heap, a Republican from Mesa, said the current defense appears to only apply to homes and yards. He said the changes he's seeking would expand it to farms and ranches and other buildings on those properties.
But in explaining the bill to the House committee, Heap specifically noted “the growing number of migrants and human traffickers traveling across farm and ranch lands.” Also, Nogales rancher George Kelly is currently on trial in Santa Cruz County for shooting and killing an unarmed migrant crossing his land.
What's most reprehensible is that when Heap first briefed the House committee on the bill, he said it would fix a “loophole” in site defense law, said Sen. Anna Hernandez (D-Phoenix).
“If a farmer owns 10,000 acres, their home might be a half mile away from where they are,” Heap told colleagues in February. “And if they see someone on their land, can they just come over and trespass on their property?”
But when the bill was considered by the Senate Judiciary Committee last month, he insisted it had nothing to do with the shooting deaths of immigrants.
Hernandez doesn't believe it, saying Heap's explanation leads to only one conclusion: Heap is trying to give some leeway to ranchers who, rather than chase trespassers away, actually kill people who cross their land.
“Are you surprised that this is being portrayed in an unexpected way?” she asked.
“I don't know if this is unexpected for you,” Hernandez continued, and she told Heap that after reading his bill, her conclusion that HB 2843 is intended to allow more people to use deadly force on ranches “is exactly the conclusion I've drawn with this bill.”
Heap said the actual language of the proposal doesn't support that.
“This bill has nothing to do with immigration,” he told Hernandez, adding that the bill doesn't change any other laws that address the question of when an individual can use deadly physical force.
So why, in promoting this bill, specifically cited “the increasing number of migrants and human traffickers moving across farm and ranch lands,” Hernandez questioned.
Heap said this was simply a reflection of what had happened the day before.
“We had the Yuma County sheriff give a presentation,” he said, “and the sheriff discussed farmers' issues with migrants crossing their fields and ruining their crops.”
So, at least from that perspective, it is relevant, he said.
“I said this is a concern. If you're a farmer, would you be allowed to go up to a migrant crossing your field and tell them they have to get off your land?” Heap said.
But that's the extent of his charges, he said.
“You're not justified in killing someone unless they use physical force,” Heap said, adding that he used the problems ranchers face to explain the bill because it was the same problem lawmakers had heard the previous day.
Even a lobbyist for the Arizona Civil Rights Organization, who testified before the Senate committee against the bill, acknowledged that HB 2843 itself does not legalize the indiscriminate killing of people who cross other people's land.
“Those who use deadly physical force against trespassers must prove that a reasonable person would believe that deadly physical force was necessary to protect themselves or others,” Marilyn Rodriguez said. “The physical force used cannot be excessive.”
But HB 2843 would expand where that deadly force can be used, assuming it's justified, from situations currently limited to what happens in someone's home or immediate yard to anywhere on someone's property, even a multi-acre ranch, she said. And at the very least, the argument for expanding what constitutes property defense to ranches and farms is dangerous, Rodriguez said.
She said the bill was passed amid an increasingly hostile climate towards immigrants, most of whom
Rodriguez said these are not smugglers, but people fleeing violence and persecution. Rodriguez also said HB 2843 sends a bad message.
“It's frightening to imagine a world where this bill becomes law and extrajudicial killings are now possible and people suddenly get the message that if they shoot first, the law is on their side,” she said.
Republican Sen. John Kavanagh of Fountain Hills responded angrily, telling Rodriguez the bill was based on claims fueled by false reports that it would legalize the shooting of immigrants.
“That's a lie,” he said, “and it's in the paper.”
Still, Kavanagh acknowledged that despite its clear language, the law could have had a real effect and led to an increase in shootings.
“People will be killed because of the misinformation that gun control advocates are spreading,” he said, “and good people who have been misled by those lies will be charged with manslaughter and negligence because they believed it was OK to shoot and kill someone in their own home based on what gun control advocates told them.”
That prompted a response from Hernandez.
“You said some lives might be lost, some people might die,” she told Kavanagh. “I hope you're not saying that's OK.”
And Hernandez said that's already happening across the country.
“People are shooting, people are killing people,” she said, “which is why this bill is of great concern.”
Kavanagh wasn't convinced.
“It's OK to shoot someone when they're trying to shoot you illegally,” he said. “It's not OK to shoot someone because they're a criminal, or because you've been misled by gun control advocates into thinking that if the fortress principle applies to your outside and even inside your home, it's OK to shoot someone wandering around your house at night.”
Anne Thompson, a volunteer representing Mothers Demand Action, questioned the need for a special extension of the right to use lethal force.
“Arizona already has a self-defense law that allows you to use lethal force if you feel threatened,” she told lawmakers. Thompson said that law also includes “a first-strike law that allows you to shoot and kill someone, even if you know you may be able to safely escape a confrontation.”
She also noted that Pima County Sheriff Chris Nanos opposes the measure.
In an interview with KVOA-TV in February, he said the measure is the same as using deadly force against someone committing a minor crime like trespassing. He gave the example of a situation where someone is playing ball and the ball ends up in someone's yard.
“Can you shoot me while I go get the ball?” Nanos said.
“This is not just insanity, it's completely ridiculous and completely unnecessary,” he said. “I think this is racist. I think it's targeted.”
Tucson Mayor Regina Romero voiced her opposition in a post on X on Wednesday, calling the measure “dangerous and completely racist” and urging the governor to veto it.
“Giving landowners the right to shoot and kill trespassers in self-defense is a callous and inhuman act of violence,” she wrote.
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About X and threads: @azcapmedia

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