Supreme Court: killing a thief when protecting property is murder

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The Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday that anyone who kills a thief (or thieves) while protecting their property in the Czech Republic will in the future not be tried for manslaughter but murder. Understandably the latter charge carries a higher sentence. Now all courts in the country will have to respect the decision from the country’s highest court.

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Two years ago the owner of a scrap yard near Brno fired several times at an escaping car with his shotgun and seriously injured a group of youths he believed were making off with his property. One of the suspects, a young woman was blinded. The owner of the yard, Karel Bašta, was charged with attempted manslaughter and subsequently sentenced to six years in prison. The charge of manslaughter though was later switched to attempted murder by a higher court.

The Supreme Court in Brno came out on Tuesday in favour of the higher court’s stand, ruling that the shots fired at the escapees amounted to attempted murder. And that will set the tone for how similar such cases will now be approached by Czech courts in the future. In short, the court said that the taking of a life - or attempt to do so – can in no way be counterbalanced by the theft of personal property. The ordinary theft of property, the Supreme Court said, did not cause serious distress or agitation – a condition required for a homicide to be considered manslaughter. The court’s spokesman is Petr Knotig:

“In cases of manslaughter you have to have a factor of sudden fear or high distress, a fearing for life and property leading to self-defence.”

As a result, the Supreme Court’s ruling will not apply to armed robberies or burglaries or when perpetrators threaten others with violence.

But the ruling has stirred up a hornet’s nest in the legal community. Some say that drawing the line between homicide and manslaughter is not always as clear cut as the Supreme Court ruling seems to suggest. Czech lawyer Jaroslav Ortman spoke to Czech TV:

“I think that the court has to approach individual cases ad hoc, case by case. It’s not possible to say in general in all cases it will always be ‘murder’. I’m convinced of that.”

Other specialists agree, including court psychologists who point out that the conditions of high distress vary from individual to individual and can be difficult to gauge. They warn that in some incidents it will be difficult to firmly assess whether someone killed another right or wrongly, saying they might easily have felt their life was in danger, even when it was not. That is something that individuals courts, despite Tuesday’s binding ruling, will still have to evaluate.