Can Living in a Bad Neighborhood Justify Self-Defense?

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A recent appeals court case in Florida explored whether the dangerousness of a neighborhood could be used to help justify the decision to use lethal force to in self defense. The defendant, Dowe, had shot and killed a man outside his home, and believed that the jury would be more sympathetic to his self defense claim if they knew how dangerous his neighborhood was. The judge declined to allow such evidence to be presented to the jury, and Dowe was ultimately convicted of second degree murder. Dowe subsequently appealed his conviction, arguing that the trial court should have permitted his “bad neighborhood” defense. The appellate court, however, agreed with the trial court, and Dowe’s conviction was affirmed. Dowe v. State, 39 So.3d 407 (Florida, Court of Appeals, June 2010). Facts

Following a local drug raid, Dowe was accused by a neighbor of being a snitch to the police. As the story was told by Dowe when he testified at trial, his angry neighbor came by Dowe’s home and threatened apparent street justice, telling him “ . . . you don’t know what I will do . . . you will not leave here tonight, I guarantee you that.” Dowe took this as a serious threat, explaining in court that “this is the hood and . . . people don’t make threats like that and [then not] carry them out, and if someone says something like that you take it seriously.”

Later that day Dowe’s neighbor again came by his home, amidst a gathering crowd, and called for him to come outside. Dowe told his neighbor to go away, saying he didn’t want any trouble. After a time Dowe exited his home and saw that two if his car tires had been slashed.

At this point, seeing his accusing neighbor walking towards him, and Dowe removed a handgun from his car’s glove box. Dowe asked why his neighbor had slashed his tires, and the approaching neighbor again told him “I told you, you’re not leaving here tonight.” At this point, Dowe swung his hand and hit the neighbor, initiating a struggle during which, Dowe claims, the gun fired accidentally, mortally wounding the neighbor. (Interestingly, this is a rare instance in which a person claiming an “accidental” shooting was also allowed to raise a self defense claim--in most jurisdictions there can be no such thing as “accidental self defense”, and a person who claims accident loses the right to argue self defense.) Ultimately, the jury decided against both the accident and self defense claims, and found Dowe guilty of second degree murder.

Analysis

The Court of Appeals acknowledged that Dowe’s state of mind was, indeed, highly relevant to the issue of self defense, noting that “a defendant’s perceptions of the surrounding events are relevant when assessing the reasonableness of the use of force in self-defense.” Nevertheless, it agreed with the trial court that evidence of the neighborhood’s dangerous was properly kept from the jury.

One reason given for this decision was that the Court believed that information on the dangerousness of the neighborhood might well have prejudiced the jury against Dowe as much as it would have against his attacker. After all, they reasoned, it’s Dowe’s neighborhood as well, and it was Dowe who had in fact just killed someone in that neighborhood--might not the jury conclude that Dowe was one of the bad characters that made the neighborhood so dangerous?

In any case, the evidence, including Dowe’s own testimony, focused almost entirely on the dangerousness of the victim rather than any more generalized dangerousness of the neighborhood, or even of the crowd gathering outside his home. The court concluded, “[Dowe] obviously intended to suggest that, because the neighborhood allegedly was dangerous, the [neighbor] must have been dangerous. Such an unsupported inference is improper.”

Discussion

The appellate court’s specific rationale for not permitting Dowe to raise the issue of the dangerousness of his neighborhood raises the interesting question of whether they would have allowed such an argument if Dowe had been merely passing through, rather than living there himself. Might the court be more amenable to such an argument in the case of an armed citizen who himself lives in a safe neighborhood but finds it necessary to defend himself from attack while passing through a substantially more dangerous neighborhood? Or where the threatened danger was perceived as coming from a broader segment of the neighborhood (such as the gathered crowd) rather than just one individual?

IMPORTANT: This blog post does NOT constitute legal advice, nor does it purport to accurately communicate the laws or court decisions of the jurisdiction of the actual case discussed. This blog post is intended solely for ILLUSTRATIVE PURPOSES, and to provide a forum for the discussion and debate of important issues relevant to the law of self defense. If you are in immediate need of legal counsel, retain a competent attorney in your jurisdiction.