By David Bailey
MINNEAPOLIS (Reuters) - A Minnesota bill that could be sent to the governor next week would sharply expand the circumstances under which people can use deadly force when they feel threatened, a measure that law enforcement groups call a recipe for getting away with murder.
Democratic Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton has not said whether he will sign or veto the measure advanced by the Republican majority state Senate and House when it gets to him.
Under the proposal, "If you are anywhere you can legally be, you can defend yourself against a criminal," said Republican Senator Gretchen Hoffman, the Senate sponsor. "If I am on the street ... and I feel imminent danger of physical harm, I should be able to act with equal or greater force."
Several state law enforcement groups opposed the measure, including the vast majority of the 300-plus members of the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association.
Speaking for the association, Champlin Police Chief David Kolb told reporters the bill would provide a loophole that becomes a defense for murder, citing his own adventure sneaking into a neighbor's yard to pick apples at 10 years old.
Kolb said he entered the yard with stealth and illegally, and under the proposed law, the property owner would be allowed to presume he posed a threat of death or great bodily harm and could use force, even possibly deadly force.
"That's one example where perhaps the intention is good, but the devil is in the details," Kolb said. "In this case, and in that specific example, this really does create a loophole and a defense for what I would consider cold-blooded murder."
The Minnesota County Attorneys Association was concerned the bill could make it harder to prosecute serious violent crimes, Ramsey County prosecutor Rick Dusterhoft said.
Law enforcement would be required to presume a person involved in an altercation under the circumstances covered was acting reasonably and could not make an arrest until an investigation was performed, he said.
Nearly all U.S. states expressly permit the use of deadly force when people reasonably believe they or another person faces imminent danger of serious harm, according to data provided by the National Council of State Legislatures.
Most states also permit the use of deadly force to defend one's home, though many limit the circumstances.
The proposed Minnesota law would extend the definition of dwelling beyond the house to include a porch, deck and enclosed yards. A car, mobile home, boat or tent also would be included.
Prosecutors also oppose a section of the bill to allow visitors to Minnesota who have carry permits from any other state to be armed in Minnesota. Minnesota recognizes permits from states with a similar background and training process.
The measure went through an extensive Senate debate before it was approved 40 to 23 largely on party lines Thursday. The proposal must return to the majority Republican state House for a vote on small changes as soon as Monday.
It does not appear Republicans would have enough votes in the legislature to override a Dayton veto.
Republican Senator Julianne Ortman, who lives in a Minneapolis suburb, said she does not own a gun and would never allow one into her house, but supported the bill and its presumption that a person can act in self-defense under certain limited circumstances.
"This bill is not really about what happens in the exchange in the use of force," Ortman said. "It is really about what happens in the court of law afterwards."
Democratic Senator John Marty said the bill could lead to unintended consequences, such as protecting drug dealers and gang members.
"This isn't criminals versus victims," Marty said. "This is an extra defense that the criminals shouldn't have and the others don't need."
(Reporting by David Bailey; Editing by Paul Thomasch)