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The Home Protection Question: How Far Is Too Far?

Your home is your castle, right? How far would you go to protect it? And yourself?

By all accounts a would-be burglar named Samuel Joseph Cutrufelli picked the wrong home when he kicked in the front door of a Greenbrae man Wednesday.

Police say the resident, a 90-year-old World War II veteran and former sheriff's air patrol deputy, put up a fight.

Cutrufelli came armed. Police said he briefly managed to "detain" Jay Leone before the homeowner accessed a gun of his own. That, police said, was when things began to go very badly for Samuel Joseph Cutrufelli.

The alleged burglar, who the Marin Independent Journal said was sentenced to six years in prison in 2001 after pleading guilty to cutting a Novato man who complained about nearly being hit in a crosswalk, later called 911 from his car in San Rafael. He had been hit three times with rounds from Leone's .38 caliber pistol. Cutrufelli told responding officers he had shot himself and needed medical attention, but by then police were aware of the shooting in Greenbrae and he was taken into custody.

Leone suffered a bullet wound to the cheek.

Both men are recuperating at hospitals in Marin County, leaving their neighbors and others to ponder the ramifications of their respective actions -- though most agree Leone was well within his rights to open fire on the intruder and that Cutrufelli, well, got what he deserved.

"Normal people don't do what I did to him," the Independent Journal quoted Cutrufelli as saying about his victim during the sentencing hearing for his stabbing case in 2001.

But at what point does ones defense of their home and person morph from self defense into aggressive action deemed "excessive" by the court system in California? The so-called "Castle Law," which does afford protection for homeowners who use deadly force when their lives are in danger, has been successfully challenged -- particularly in cases where residents used deadly force against strangers who mistakenly entered their homes.

Although a challenge would seem unlikely in the Greenbrae case, in California a person would generally be justified in using force sufficient to cause death or great bodily injury only when their attacker is already using such force and the defending person "reasonably" believes that he or she is in immanent danger of being killed or severely injured. But what legally constitutes the "reasonable" belief could ultimately be decided by a jury and not by the person who acted in self defense.

We are reminded of the case of San Francisco cab driver Holden Charles "Chuck" Hollom, a driver for Luxor cab who, one night in May 1989, witnessed a mugger named Ocie McClure assault a pregnant Japanese tourist on Market Street in San Francisco -- kicking her in the stomach before making off with her purse.

"He was a specter running down the street," Hollom said at the time. "Visualize a man the size, shape and build of Mike Tyson, his eyeballs bulging, sweat popping out of his head. You had to see him."

Hollom gave chase in his cab, swerved around another cabbie and pinned McClure to the wall of a building, holding him there for police for four minutes -- and breaking his leg in two places in the process.

A San Francisco attorney sued on McClure's behalf and won, convincing a jury that Hollom needed to compensate the purse-snatcher $24,595 in medical expenses to pay for his damaged legs.

The resulting hue and cry was heard far beyond the San Francisco city limits, with rallies held to defray the judgment on Hollom's behalf and death threats for the attorney, who insisted he did the right thing.

"His leg was broken in two places, and on one of the breaks, a bone was displaced. An artery was severed. A muscle was torn and just hanging there. It was gruesome. It looked like chopped meat," attorney Ian Zimmerman said at the time.

McClure, who was serving a 10-year prison sentence, never got the money because he was treated at public expense. Luxor paid Hollom's legal fees and "Chuck Hollom" cans popped up in saloons all over the city -- with residents donating thousands in his name.

But residents were unhappy that a man who took action to stop a criminal act could be successfully sued -- by the perpetrator.

"My God, there's few of us enough who have the guts to do something like that," said Desmond Reeves, a San Franciscan retiree, at the time. "And this guy gets soaked for his pain because in the excitement of the moment he used a little excess force. As far as I'm concerned, the mugger should be dead."

What do you think, Lamorinda? Our Wild West roots are showing and Californians appreciate tales involving obvious "men of action" like Leone and Hollom -- but are they to be lauded or viewed with a jaundiced eye? You tell us...

CJ January 05, 2012 at 08:58 PM
If a perp is in my house. He will not leave injured. He will not leave alive. Period. By being in my house (clearly armed or not) he will have threatened me and my family and I will not take a chance trying to determine intent. He loses that right by going in. By leaving in a bag he will not be available for interviews or lawsuits down the road. Just call our local Crime Scene Cleaners and deal with the mess.
Lafayette Curmudgeon January 05, 2012 at 09:01 PM
I think every homeowner in America should be required to own a device that would make precisely the sound of a 12-gauge shell being racked. No need to force anyone to own a gun, but that noise -- more than any other -- is going to scare any burglar right back out the back door.
Nancy Lee January 05, 2012 at 09:42 PM
Wow. I'd hate to be the UPS person, or just lost... in some of your neighborhoods!
Lafayette Curmudgeon January 05, 2012 at 09:46 PM
So long as the UPS guy doesn't break in through the patio door at 1 a.m. with the intent to kill my family, he's probably got nothing to worry about.
Chris Nicholson January 05, 2012 at 09:57 PM
I respect the right of people to NOT protect themselves. In fact, the existence of such folks could amplify the deterrence benefit to the rest of us-- if only that info was known to perps. To that end, I will provide to any Lamorindan, free of charge, a sign reading "This home contains no firearms and we do not believe that we have the right to protect our property with deadly force."
Lourdes January 05, 2012 at 10:02 PM
I'm noticing that these front door break ins are happening in daytime with increasing frequency. Or is that just me? This one was at Ten Forty in the morning. Do the bad guys think no one will be home then or what?
X January 05, 2012 at 11:28 PM
When someone has broken into your home - Shoot first. Ask questions later. Someone who has entered your home by mistake (provided they aren't high on drugs or drink & if they are who knows what they'll do to you) will not act aggressively. Anyone acting aggressively should be viewed as a threat. Of course, if the police arrest you, there's always the Twinkie Defense. You can apparently murder two people - shooting one in the shoulder, chest and twice in the head; and the other five times - twice with the gun pressed against the victim's skull AND a San Francisco jury will find you guilty of nothing more than voluntary manslaughter. Keep a few boxes of Twinkies around the house to bolster your defense.
X January 05, 2012 at 11:31 PM
Best deterrence for petty crimes would be if we implemented caning. Most petty criminals serve very little jail time and when they do they simply come out having learned how to be better crooks. If we find capital punishment to be morally acceptable, I fail to see how corporal punishment is any worse.
Bob January 06, 2012 at 12:46 AM
As I see it, a person breaks into my home and is armed with a lethal weapon, he has prepared himself to do what ever it takes to accomplish his mission. It is my job to do whatever I can to protect myself and my family. I am prepared to do that. I hope I don't have to but there are to many stories like this where the innocent person loses. I applaud Mr. Leone for keeping his name out of the obituary section.
Shon Sherwood January 06, 2012 at 12:50 AM
I suppose it depends on how someone enters your home. In the above example where someone violently kicks in a door to gain entry, violence is already done. You don't need to assume the invading party is violent: they've already proven that they are by committing an act of violence (against your door). You have to assume further violence is intended. Since you have no real data on what that violence involves and the situation is moving too fast you have to assume worst case scenario and attack immediately without any hesitation using whatever means are available to you at the time with the objective of incapacitating the intruder before they can hurt anyone. If they wind up getting killed in the process that's unfortunately just not relevant.
Chris Nicholson January 06, 2012 at 01:03 AM
Feels like an NRA convention in this thread. No one is going to argue for stricter gun control laws? Does anyone really *need* a handgun? Wouldn't we be better off if only the cops had guns? Isn't it more risky to have a gun in the house with kids around versus NOT having a gun in the unlikely case that a bad guy comes around? Shouldn't people have a duty to escape through the back door, call the cops and let the thieves do their thing? What material object in your house is more valuable than a human life-- even a troubled one? Anyone? Bueller? Bueller? Eileen?
Bob January 06, 2012 at 01:17 AM
I think it is a day dream to think the criminals are going to give up their hand guns. I am not that concerned with protecting my property but protecting myself and my family from harm. In this article it didn't sound like Mr Leone had the opportunity to "sneak out the back Jack". For him to get shot in the cheek it seems to me the intruder was going for the kill. I am wishing Mr Leone a speedy recovery.
Eileen January 06, 2012 at 01:32 AM
Aaw, you missed me. I'm touched. But, I'm not going to take the bait re: gun control laws. Suffice to say that after many years of living in LA, NYC, no, I've never once considered owning a gun. Add kids to the mix, and yes, I think that creates a great deal more danger to my family's well-being than a robbery. The photos and dox are backed up to the cloud if they take the iMac and the truly valuable stuff they'd want is stashed in the safety deposit box. Years ago, when we had another little girl over for the first time, her mom asked if we kept guns in the house. I was a little taken aback, thinking to myself - who does? I guess now I know why she asked....
dave in moraga January 06, 2012 at 04:22 AM
Well, when you have to solicit a comment from a pretty vocal female patch contributor, I would reckon that you boys are pretty much just talking to yourselves. Keep them doggies movin' Rawhide! Don't try to understand 'em, Just rope and throw and grab 'em, Soon we'll be living high and wide. (1958)
freethemommy January 06, 2012 at 04:41 AM
Had a perp break into my house in Tahoe a few years ago. Cops said he knew I was home and been watching me that day. Lucky to hear it, shot just above his head( double pane glass is VERY loud ) and chased him away. Had he been fully in the house, I would have shot him dead. I was 23. Now, with kids, I know that if they know you are home, and still want to enter, they mean to harm. No hesitation. .
dave in moraga January 06, 2012 at 05:36 AM
I sense a swarm of killer bees lurking, waiting for an unaware puppy to wander into their midst. Gun control anyone? AK47's, cannons? Anyone? Anyone? The suspense is killing me.
Tim January 06, 2012 at 03:03 PM
my same thoughts. Thanks
Tim January 06, 2012 at 03:22 PM
Being trigger happy can lead to tragic mistakes: http://lubbockonline.com/news/020997/wifeshot.htm http://www.koinlocal6.com/news/local/story/Oregon-man-shot-five-times-by-wife-says-it-was-a/Gc193Dm7ikuU-TyqalfzuQ.cspx http://www.koinlocal6.com/news/local/story/Oregon-man-shot-five-times-by-wife-says-it-was-a/Gc193Dm7ikuU-TyqalfzuQ.cspx and this one son shoots father by mistake: http://www.independentmail.com/news/2011/jun/02/sc-son-mistakes-father-intruder-shoots-him/ http://www.koco.com/r-video/29769286/detail.html http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-news/1192711/posts Enough?
Chris Nicholson January 06, 2012 at 04:00 PM
Nope. Not nearly enough. This is a big country, with >300M people. Statistically, accidental gun deaths per capita are at an all-time low, and falling. Most can be prevented by common sense access controls (educate/hide/lock). In contrast, imagine the potential reduction in crime if perps perceived a dramatically higher risk of armed confrontation or death. In general, the bad guys don't hunt down and kill random people. They assume that they will get what they want (property/rape/whatever) via stealth and/or overwhelming and unmatched force. I'd like to see that risk/reward equation changed. If you think bad guys are just totally nuts and do not respond to rational deterrents, then please provide your address so I can send you one of my free signs (described upthread).
Tim January 06, 2012 at 04:43 PM
Chris; "then please provide your address so I can send you one of my free signs (described upthread). That is a silly proposition even if it was a rhetorical one. My concerns are how boisterous and smug the trigger happy crowd can be..al I am saying is it can lead to tragedies, and they happen. I am amused also about yur contradictory statements, on the one hand you state that gun death per capita are at an all time low (presumambly crimes committed using Guns, because all violent crimes are low and getting lower a trend of many years now), and on the other, you say 'imagine the potential reduction in crime if" what iis it, Chris? high Crime or low crime rates? and what about Lamorinda is it a high crime rate or an even lower that the US average? ..I know the answers, but you seem to ignore them for some misterious reasons.
Lafayette Curmudgeon January 06, 2012 at 04:53 PM
Of course they're dangerous. But it doesn't even come close to the death-machines that are swimming pools. In 2000, there were 62 unintentional gun deaths in the US for ages between 0-14. In 2000, there were 745 drowning deaths for the same age group. http://webappa.cdc.gov/sasweb/ncipc/mortrate10_us.html
X January 06, 2012 at 05:07 PM
LC - Thank you. I grew up in the South - where everyone has a swimming pool. If we want to keep kids safe at home, we'd ban swimming pools long before we ban guns.
Nancy Lee January 06, 2012 at 05:09 PM
You'll have to pry my swimming pool from my cold, dead hand....
Lafayette Curmudgeon January 06, 2012 at 05:09 PM
No toddler ever fell into a gun cabinet while chasing their ball.
Chris Nicholson January 06, 2012 at 05:28 PM
Tim: Read my post again. Slowly. Note the word "accidental"--- which was the thrust of your post. No contradiction. Also crime rates are not binary. How do you define "high" and "low?" All other things being equal, do you think perps would be more or less likely to enter homes in an area known to contain armed residents, or an otherwise-identical neighborhood with no guns?
Tim January 06, 2012 at 07:19 PM
yes you mentioned accidental, my mistake, but still since the gun related violence is significantly less and the trend is still going down, you are still contradicting youself. on accidental death by guns, they seem to be undereported : "Conclusions. The incidence of unintentional pediatric firearm deaths is significantly underreported by the Miami-Dade County ME when the classification of “accidental” firearm death is used. Reviewing the manner of death classification criteria or establishing an intent code on official death documentation is recommended. Furthermore, clinicians should be aware that the true incidence of unintentional gun death may be higher than that reported as accidental." http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/111/4/741.full
Lafayette Curmudgeon January 06, 2012 at 07:35 PM
Even if you take *all* firearm related deaths for 0-14 -- homicide, suicide or accidental -- it's still only half the number of drowning deaths. And when you control that for houses with firearms (~50%) v. houses with swimming pools (8.6 million (which seems low, but the interwebs are always right)), and you've got some very big discrepencies in safety, no matter how you want to slice gun-related deaths.
Deborah January 10, 2012 at 10:35 AM
Update: On 1/9/12 @ about 7:00 am, a male perp kicked in the front door of a home on Old Tunnel Rd., Lafayette. Female at home. (These facts are off the top of my head, from memory. I could be wrong, here and there.)
Bob January 12, 2012 at 01:57 AM
Early Morning Burglary In Lafayette Stuns Homeowner A Lafayette resident wakes up to a loud noise Monday -- and finds a strange man in her living room. By J.D. O'Connor Email the author January 9, 2012 Email Print 5 Comments Patch has been informed of a sizable police response to the area of 3100 Old Tunnel Rd. after a resident living in the area reported hearing a loud noise and waking up to find a man rummaging through her living room. It appears the homeowner was asleep when the intruder kicked in her front door at 6:38 a.m. Monday. The resident at first thought some boxes had fallen but went to check and saw the man with a flashlight going through the residence. Lafayette police are on the scene and are reportedly searching the area. No suspect description is available at the present time. We'll update this story as it develops.
Fredo Lives October 25, 2012 at 06:23 PM
Got to love liberals - they pander to the criminals and ignore the victems.

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