One of the fun things about studying law is that I am constantly readind stories in the news and thinking- that reminds me of a case.
This happened this morning when I saw a link to a story about a North Carolina man who rigged up his election sign to act basically as an electric fence. People kept stealing the campaign signs in his yard, so he rigged the sign to deliver an electric shock. And then he set up a video camera.
A 9-year-old boy tried to steal his sign and replace it with another. He got zapped and ran off.
The parents of the boy, apparently not angry that their child was committing trespass and stealing someone’s property, complained to the police.
So here’s a question- can you set up a trap to hurt thieves, when you know someone is likely to steal your property? Like so many legal questions, the answer is maybe.
We read a case in torts, Katko v. Briney, where a man rigged a shotgun trap and a thief was seriously injured when he set off the trap. You may be surprised to know that the property owner was found liable in civil court for injuring the thief.
However, the reason is a general principle that property is not as valuable as human life, so while you can use force to protect property, you can’t use deadly force. This of course is only relevant if the victim’s life is not in danger. In Katko, the victim of the theft was over a mile away, so there was no risk to his life- therefore, he didn’t have a right to seriously injure the thief.
Applying this to the campaign sign case, I would guess that since the property owner was an electrician who rigged up just the right amount of voltage to shock, but not injure (he even tested it on himself), the Katko principle would not apply. An electric jolt, like that from an electric fence, is not deadly force, and did not seriously injure the child. So he probably would not be found liable. Then again, if the jolt injured the child, he might be.
Here is the video of the incident