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Arizona bill would let business owners use deadly force against vandals

Arizona senators are poised to decide whether to allow business owners and their employees to kill people who are damaging or even defacing their property.

Legislation set for a roll-call vote this week would expand existing laws that allow people to use deadly physical force.

Right now that legal right is limited to things like preventing murder, rape, child molestation and arson of an occupied structure. But Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita (R-Scottsdale) said that list needs to be expanded.

"Sadly, we have become all too familiar with the looting and smash-and-grab thefts that have occurred across the country and has resulted in violence and property damage,'' she told members of the Senate Judiciary Committee which already has approved the measure on a 5-3 party-line vote, with all Republicans in favor. "I believe we need to strengthen our laws so that business owners will have a legal justification for using physical force or even deadly force when defending their property.''

But Sen. Martin Quezada (D-Glendale) told colleagues they need to consider the message they are sending.

"This is a bill that puts the value of property above the value of human life,'' he said. "Regardless, if somebody is committing criminal damage or not, no property is worth more than human life.''

Sen. Warren Petersen (R-Gilbert) said the question of whether property is equivalent to life is not that simple.

"It depends,'' he said. "If you have somebody who's spent their entire life ... they saved everything, their whole life, their whole little life was put into buying the things they have, and then you destroy it or steal that from them, you've literally taken their life away from them.

Ugenti-Rita said her Senate Bill 1650 would not provide an unrestricted license to kill. She said it requires that the person against whom they use force is "knowingly defacing or damaging property'' of another person. And that, Ugenti-Rita conceded, could mean someone spray painting graffiti. More significant, she said, her measure would allow business owners to use deadly force only if the other person possess a "deadly weapon or dangerous instrument.''

But Rep. Lupe Contreras (D-Avondale) said that hardly curbs the power of business owners to kill. Existing state law defines a dangerous instrument as "anything that under the circumstances in which it is used ... is readily capable of causing death or serious physical injury.''

And Contreras, to prove his point as the committee was debating the bill, held up a pen.

"You can kill somebody with this pen if you stab them in the right place,'' Contreras said. "Any little thing you have in your hands, a blunt object that you can just pick up off the floor, you hit somebody in their temple and you can kill them,'' he continued. "So where do we draw the line?

Ugenti-Rita, however, said she did not want to make the language in her bill too specific as to exclude things nor so broad that it is over inclusive. "I guess if you do it just right, you could stab a Q-tip into someone's eye and do permanent damage,'' she told Contreras. "Is that a dangerous weapon?''

The question of what is a weapon aside, Ugenti-Rita said she sees the issue from a different perspective. "I'm sorry, but it's a serious, violent crime that's occurring,'' she said. "And I think the owner, the owner's representatives should be able to consider that if they feel it's necessary.''

K.M. Bell, representing the American Civil Liberties Union urged lawmakers to quash the measure. She said that the conditions that Ugenti-Rita put in the language don't really limit its scope. "The courts have made it very clear that a dangerous instrument can include a pocket knife in your pocket,'' she said. In fact, Bell told lawmakers, it even can include a prosthetic limb. "It's a very broad term in the law,'' she said.

Bell said it also doesn't meet the standards in law for imposition of the death penalty, one that she said requires a showing of "reckless indifference to human life.'' "This would, in effect, allow members of the public to impose the death penalty for the spraying of graffiti,'' she said.

Katie Gipson McLean, a defense attorney, also questioned the breadth of the measure, saying it would amount to "being a reason for them to possibly die over something that's even less than $250 worth of value.''

Ugenti-Rita was unconvinced, saying that the conditions in her bill preclude just anyone from killing a person committing property damage. More to the point, she said the situation also has to be seen through the eyes of the business owner. "Your ability to earn a living and take care of yourself and your family is inextricably tied to your ability to have employment and, in this case, own a business,'' Ugenti-Rita said. "The vast majority of businesses are small businesses, under 100 employees.''

She said the use of deadly physical force has to be an option for those who have exhausted other options. "You should have the right to defend your property like you defend yourself,'' Ugenti-Rita said. "The unintended consequences that can come from someone damaging your property are severe to your livelihood, to you and your family.''

There is nothing in her bill, however, that makes the ability to use deadly physical force contingent on exhausting other options.

Ugent-Rita, who is running for secretary of state, said her decision to propose this law isn't just about what she said is an uptick in property damage. "You couple that with the 'defund the police' movement, you couple that with municipalities and elected officials not supporting our law enforcement,'' she said. And Ugenti-Rita said police may not be able to answer calls from business owners "because they simply don't have enough resources.''

Sen. Sonny Borrelli (R-Lake Havasu City) said it has to be seen through the eyes of business owners. He spoke of being in the Marines and being deployed to Los Angeles to help the police department during the riots in 1992 after four police officers were acquitted in the beating death of Rodney King. Total property damage from the multi-day incident was closed to $1 billion.

"Those Korean neighborhoods, those business owners, small business owners, had their entire life savings, their entire livelihood is resting on protecting their property,'' Borrelli said. He also said that the police are "minutes away'' in urban areas, longer in rural areas. "A lot of things can happen in three or four minutes,'' Borrelli said. "Most firefights in combat last less than a minute.''

If the measure clears the Senate it then goes to the House for a new set of hearings.

Tom Maxedon is the host of KJZZ’s Weekend Edition on Saturday and Sunday from 6-10 a.m. and All Things Considered on Monday from 3-6 p.m.