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After 13-year-old boy’s fatal shooting, legal experts say deadly force typically can’t be used to defend property

“I know of no law that allows for deadly force purely in the defense of property,” NBC News legal analyst Danny Cevallos said.
Karon Blake.
Karon Blake.Courtesy Sean Long

Under the laws of Washington, D.C., protecting property does not typically justify the use of lethal force, legal and criminal justice experts said as police investigate the fatal shooting of a 13-year-old boy in the city over the weekend.

Karon Blake was shot shortly before 4 a.m. Saturday by a man who left his home with a registered firearm to investigate what he believed was someone tampering with cars in his neighborhood, police have said. The two had an "interaction" before the man fired his weapon, striking the boy, police said.

While additional details have not been released and the shooting remains under investigation, outrage has been brewing among community groups and others who have criticized the use of lethal force in response to an alleged property crime and demanded the release of the man’s name and any visual evidence.

Legal experts agreed that deadly force is not a legally justifiable way to defend property, except, perhaps, in cases of self-defense or home intrusion.

"I know of no law that allows for deadly force purely in the defense of property," NBC News legal analyst Danny Cevallos said. "It’s always been the case that you can’t use deadly force to protect your property."

Details of the shooting have not been released to the public, so experts said they did not want to speculate about the specifics of the case.

However, John Copacino, a professor of law and the director of the Criminal Justice Clinic at Georgetown University in Washington, said: “The law is pretty clear that you cannot use deadly force in defense of personal property.

“You can only use reasonable, nondeadly force to defend against the deprivation of personal property,” he said.

Flowers are attached to a pole as a memorial to Karon Blake in the Brookland neighborhood
Flowers are attached to a pole as a memorial to Karon Blake in the Brookland neighborhood of Washington, D.C., on Wednesday.Carolyn Kaster / AP

David Pucino, the deputy chief counsel of the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, said that as a general matter in Washington and in the U.S. as a whole, “you are permitted to use lethal force if you think there’s a serious threat of serious bodily injury to yourself."

But he added that in Washington and in most of the country, the use lethal force is not allowed in defense of property. 

Both Pucino and Copacino said there is an exception in Washington for using lethal force when an intruder is trying to break into a home, especially if the homeowner believes the intruder is breaking in to commit a felony.

“But if we’re talking about a situation where that’s not the case, where there’s not the invasion of the home as part of the fact pattern, then D.C. law is clear that you cannot use lethal force to defend property,” Pucino said.

Mayor Muriel Bowser said Wednesday that the person who shot Karon is a district government employee who is not involved in public safety. His name has not been released.

Karon was Black. The man who shot him is Black and has a concealed-carry license and a registered firearm, Police Chief Robert J. Contee III said. The man called 911 and was performing CPR when officers arrived, police said.

The case is still under active investigation, Contee said, and police are working with the U.S. attorney’s office on the possibility of charges. He said the case would go to a grand jury.

Contee said Tuesday that for shootings to be justified, people have to be in fear for their lives or the lives of others.

“Those are the facts that we have to sift through to figure out, hey, did that happen? And based upon the information that we have, present that information to a grand jury to see if that is reasonable,” he said.

Karon’s grandfather, Sean Long, called Wednesday for the shooter’s swift arrest and conviction and said his grandson “didn’t get a chance to grow up.”

“He’s too young — 13 years old,” Long said. “That’s what’s killing me. He’s a baby.”