Use of Deadly Force Against Shoplifter Stealing A Hatchet – Case of the Week

USA – -( On October 3, 2018, Michael Dunn—a City Commissioner for the city of Lakeland FL—shot and killed Cristobal Lopez as Lopez was shoplifting a hatchet from Dunn’s store, reports TheLedger, a local paper.

The shooting occurred as Dunn was attempting to stop Lopez from leaving the store with the hatchet. The struggle at the door, the shooting, and the rapid demise of Lopez were all captured on the store’s security recording, which you can view below.

The facts of this case involve issues of both defense of property and defense of person.

Defense of Property as Justification for Deadly Force

In this instance the defense of property issue is limited to the defense of least-defensible (tangible) property, rather than the defense of highly-defensible property (such as a dwelling) which would provide for more relaxed conditions for the use of deadly defensive force.

The tangible property in this instance is the hatchet Lopez was attempting to shoplift.

The use of force in defense of tangible property is governed by Florida law by §776.031. Florida statute §776.031 allows for the use of force in defense of property against a person who is attempting to commit criminal interference, for example theft, of that property.

Here Dunn clearly had right of possession to the hatchet in his store, and Lopez’ attempt to steal that hatchet was also clearly criminal interference with that property. Accordingly, Dunn was entitled to use force against Lopez to the extent necessary to prevent Lopez’ criminal interference with that property.

However, §776.031 explicitly provides that whatever degree of force is used in defense of such tangible property, the use of deadly force is notpermissible (“read…except deadly force…”). Shooting and killing Lopez unambiguously qualifies as deadly force. So Dunn cannot justify his use of deadly force as defense of property.

Defense of Person as Justification for Deadly Force

This leaves Dunn with defense of person as his sole remaining legal justification for his use of deadly force. Florida has several statutes dealing with the use of deadly defensive force in defense of persons, including §776.012 Use or threatened use of force in defense of person and §782.02 Justifiable use of deadly force.

In summary, both §776.012 and §782.02 that provide for the use of deadly defensive force in defense of persons require that either the defender be facing an imminent threat of death or grave bodily harm or that he be resisting an attempt by that other person to murder him or commit a forcible felony upon him.

Evidence of an Imminent Deadly Force Threat is Weak

In viewing the surveillance video, however, it is not at all clear that Dunn’s use of deadly force, at the moment it was used, was necessary to prevent his own death or great bodily harm.

Although Lopez may have held the hatchet—a potentially deadly weapon—in his right hand, that hand was extended away from Dunn and was being used to open the store’s door in an apparent effort to escape with the stolen property, and the hatchet was not being held or wielded in a threatening manner, nor to murder Dunn or commit a felony upon Dunn.

Here’s an image showing the two men’s relative positions at the moment Dunn shot Lopez:

Use of Deadly Force Against Shoplifter Stealing A Hatchet - Case of the Week
Use of Deadly Force Against Shoplifter Stealing A Hatchet – Case of the Week

The facts of this case as we know them so far, then, do not appear to legally justify Dunn’s actions. Given the binary nature of justification defenses, should Dunn’s justification claim fail he’s left with 100% criminal liability for killing Lopez. Indeed, if it merely appears that Dunn’s justification claim is vulnerable to attack, that alone may be sufficient to encourage prosecution.

Was It Worth It?

The technical legal details aside, it’s also worth asking what I urge all my students and clients to contemplate—will that use of force have been worth it?

In this case Dunn killed Lopez over a $16 hatchet. Even if no charges are ever brought against Dunn, he still exposed himself to at least the potential of a murder trial, not to mention having to live with killing a man over $16.

And should charges be brought, and Dunn convicted, he faces perhaps the rest of his life in prison—over a $16 hatchet. I expect it isn’t hard for anyone reading this to come up with other ways Dunn could have dealt with Lopez’s theft that includes a reasonable prospect of recovering the hatchet, without resulting in Lopez’s death and Dunn’s criminal prosecution.

— Andrew

Learn more about self-defense law from Attorney Andrew F. Branca and Law of Self Defense LLC by visiting the Law of Self Defense Patreon page for both free and paid-access content, and by viewing his free weekly Law of Self Defense Show.

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  • 51 thoughts on “Use of Deadly Force Against Shoplifter Stealing A Hatchet – Case of the Week

    1. In the old days, you’d have a dead crook on the floor with a hatchet. Modern video shows exactly what happened, or does it?

    2. When are DEMORATS POLITICIANS and LIBERALS gonna stop pandering to illegals??? This illegals was in possession of a weapon who in turn committed a armed robbery. This is civlized country AMERICA not the jungles of Honduras
      Where armed robbery and murder is an accepted way of life. Dunn is lucky to be alive and did the right thing taking this animals life.

    3. Oldmarine on weapons
      Anything can be used as a weapon, just ask any Marine today that has attended a MARPAT training (Anything and Time).
      Even a sheet of paper can be a deadly weapon but the most deadly weapon of all is telling a lie and it is not even a physical weapon. Even the Bible states that one of the worst sins is the act of telling a lie. I would guess that telling a lie has killed as many people as guns (with the exception of War). When two adversaries face each other in a situation as this one I would say that All Is Fair in Love and War. You can’t read a person’s mind and can’t tell what he will do. If the criminal wins then everyone looses but him. Laws do not regulate the criminal because they have already chose to break the law. What do you do with a person that has decided to take what is yours? Are you going to just watch him take what he wants of your’s, or are you going to try to stop him? It’s about the same when someone is shooting at you. You have the Constitutional and natural right to defend your life and your property. When someone trespasses into your life by stealing something of yours then you have the right to do anything to stop them no matter how bad you think it is. For those who think this is about justification, apparently have never been in a situation like this. Human reaction is an act of nature or put it another way “an act of God”. I think anyone with a “PAIR” would have reacted the same way. An old Indian saying “Don;t judge until you have walked a mile in their shoes”. I see this case as an natural act of defense against an attacker. True-fully the the store keeper was lucky to have the gun in his hand or the thief would probably been much more aggressive. Think about this The Law is NOT always correct but the Constitution is ALWAYS correct because it is based on Natural Human Rights. I have used a nice outlook in this comment but if I were the store keeper I would have made sure that the thief regretted this for the rest of his life instead of killing him. That would be justice. Semper Fi

    4. Current law sees the state as a “victim” with a superior claim against the criminal than the actual victim. Under current law, this does not look like a “Good Shoot”. Ethical arguments for and against the use of force abound. The effects of audio and visual exclusion more than likely played a part and will have to be determined. There is a possibility of involuntary muscle response causing the weapon discharge. More potential weapons than the hatchet were present and available to the criminal during the incident. One appeared to be in use by the criminal in the provided photo. The current problem with the law is the state is seen as the victim, not the affected individual. Until the laws are changed where individual damages / loss exceed the state’s interests, requiring criminals to make restitution, people will make bad choices under current laws. Restitution laws encourage the criminal captures. Following the law changes, the general populace and the criminal class need to be educated. 1. Do not commit a crime. 2. The criminal’s best choice is to surrender when confronted during the commission of a crime. Restitution is required in lieu of or before the completion of any state imposed sentence. 3. When a criminal does not surrender when confronted, the criminal may be injured to affect capture or killed with no recourse by the criminal or the criminal’s family. Finally, educate the general populace to the fact they do not have to accept, endure or tolerate criminal activity (The current situation.) Educate the general populace and the criminal class deadly force always acceptable against criminal activity. The court’s role should be as an adjudicator and insurer of restitution. State punishment should be secondary to restitution.

    5. Sorry, but the camera was not the store owners best asset at the time of this. Nevertheless, the hatchet the perp stole could have been stolen because he was planning on using it on someone. I can’t imagine he was going to chop some firewood or build a camp fire. Yes a life was lost but that latino put himself in the position for that to happen. Maybe his mamma should have told him that he is not privileged to take what ever he wants. I would gladly serve on that jury.

    6. Just remember a hatchet is a weapon, Stealing a hatchet made the crime armed robbery when he resisted the attempts to stop him from leaving. Regardless of the hatchet being used to threaten or not, had he had a gun he would be charged with armed robbery, same with the hatchet? The mere possession of the hatchet made the suspect armed.

      Just as if the person stealing something is armed with a gun or knife or hatchet, it becomes an armed crime. It falls under the “forcible felonies” listed in Chapter 776. An argument can be made that does one have to wait for the weapon to be used on you to use force to stop the person?

      But all of that said, I personally do not think it was a legal use of force.

    7. Oldmarine
      This victim will never get a fair trial because the prosecutors will never allow the jury to be made of true PEERS.
      Sorry but that is the truth, the legal system is not corrupt it is incompetent. Why because the Judges are mostly UNEDUCATED in Natural law, although it is noted in the first pages of Law Books that there are three laws
      1.” Man Made Law” can be broken by deciding to do so producing criminals.
      2.” Moral Law “and (religion) Everyone breaks according to your morals.
      3. “Natural Law” Impossible to break. The most powerful force in existence. Sometimes called ” The Hand of God.”
      Ignore Natural law at your own peril. Nature can be good or vicious.
      The Constitution is the most important document that mankind has produced and will eventually determine the survival of man in the future. It is actually in agreement with nature than any other document past or present. Semper Fi

      1. @OM, What is the title and author of the law book that you reference? I have a huge collection of law books. Maybe it is one that I have or would like to add to my collection.

        1. Oldmarine >>> wild Bill
          Bill, I have a bad opinion of written laws passed by almost any government because they mostly ignore the natural Laws thereby ignoring the very reason that laws are supposed to exist. In ancient times the laws mostly catered to the rulers. Natural human emotions of Freedom, Love, Religion and Family sslowly changed the laws but at the same time began to completely forget about the natural laws. All men have faults or sins but I believe that the forefathers realized their own faults and in the end produced a document of both pragmatic and natural laws. The trouble I find with many of our laws is that part of the Constitution dealing with natural law is missing or ignored. I feel that most laws are incomplete and that causes a lot of confusion and misunderstanding making people try an interpretation a given law . I see interpretation of laws as just another opinion and there are many of those. I Don’t think that law makers really have the citizen’s interest at heart. Education doesen’t make a Lawyer or Judge, It’s understanding that makes them GOOD representatives of the law. It will never be perfect because laws are made by men. Instead of making new laws they should review exisiting laws to insure they correct under the Constitution . Well I’ve bent you ear enough but I hope you can see what I am getting at. No Law is perfect. >>> Oldmarine

    8. I recently had a conversation with a range buddy in which I said that if you discover a person in your occupied home carrying away your television there is essentially nothing you can do about it. You can’t shoot him, and I would think you can’t hit him with your #4 iron either since he is not offering a threat of death or great bodily harm. If you hit him with the golf club I suspect you will be charged with assault, manslaughter or perhaps murder.
      The indignation among the range buddies was almost universal with comments such as I read above, like I might as well leave the door open, what’s this ;county coming to, must be the democrats, etc.
      I think I see another incident like this one in the making. My buddies can be as angry, indignant, frustrated as they like but if they do something stupid, like this store owner, I’m not contributing to their legal defense fund. And I’ll probably be able to buy their car and home for $.10 on the dollar when they can no longer make their payments from jail.
      When I hear or read comments which are clearly coming from anger and frustration, I hope these gun owners are just venting, and when faced with the reality will behave in accordance with the law. Unfortunately I doubt that will be the case because all their thinking is priming them to act badly. These folks are clearly people we do not want in the gun community because their actions reflect badly on all of us. It is better to take a trip to Walmart to get a new TV than a trip to jail.
      And just so none of these bone-heads start ranting about how I must be a liberal democrat, know that I go armed all the time, at home also, and will not hesitate to defend myself against a deadly threat to me and mine. I also vote republican on the single issue of gun control.

      1. In Oklahoma with that scenario you would be clear to shoot the perp. Uninvited and committing a felony. Castle doctrine. Better watch out for his buddy/buddies too.

    9. From that video, it does not appear to be a justified shooting. I suspect it was a negligent discharge while fighting with the man, trying to prevent his leaving. Otherwise, it was an intentional discharge, which I believe he will face a greater penalty for the shooting. The thief was only trying to get free of Dunn’s grip, which in the process, resulted in his shirt being ripped, at which point Dunn shot him. So it was either negligent or intended (not wanting him to leave with stolen property.

      Now the argument is about the use of deadly force. By law, a firearm is considered lethal weapon, but many people have died from getting hit or just falling. So could any force resulting in his death, inadvertent or not, under this law, be considered use of deadly force? If the thief fell and died during the struggle be use of deadly force?

      He had a handgun pointed at him, yet continued to fight and try to flee. To me that would appear quite stupid. How much responsibility does he have for preservation of his own life? What reasonable person would fight while a firearm is pointed at him/her? How much property is the store owner supposed to let walk out of his store? The proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.

    10. I agree with OLDMARINE when he says our laws are not strong enough to deal with scum bags like Lopez. With that said, we are a nation of laws and we must live under their rule or change them through the legislature. Dunn should have waited until they both reached the parking lot where a confrontation with Lopez could have resulted in a defensive of life situation. Not to mention being out of camera shot.

      1. Jeffrey, the problem with that (letting him get to the parking lot) is that that would not be self-defense. You are not allowed to initiate nor escalate a confrontation and claim self-defense.

    11. BubbaOnPC is correct. The illegals don’t care about our laws or about how things they do impact other people. You could tell by the look on the thief’s face that he didn’t care what the laws were. He appeared to only be thinking he should be able to take whatever he wants. That is the fault of the liberal democrats giving them everything they want. Free food, free money, free housing and free medical. The thing is, it’s not really free, we have to pay for it. You give someone everything they want and don’t expect them to take anything else they want is totally mental. I say the guy looked like an illegal not because of the color of his skin but by the look of entitlement on his face. They do what they want and expect no one to stop them. Well it’s time to help the President clean up our illegal problem. If you have a suspected illegal you can always call ICE. I’ve seen signs here in MI to report illegals when you see them and I believe we should all follow that path.

    12. Oldmarine >>> the Constitution
      The forefathers put into the Constitution that you have the right to defend your life and property. Remember that at the time the Constitution was written a thief could be Hung simply because the thing stolen sometimes had devastating effect on the victim. stealing from someone always has an emotional affect on the victim. Stealing is not only a crime but a personal attack on the victim. Breaking the law intentional is asking for the victim to retaliate with emotional force. The law now-days is poor compared to any form of true justice. It leaves the victim without any feeling of justice or even a feeling of equality. The Constitution should be enforced then lawless activity would would not so attractive to criminals. Cry all you want for the criminal but how about crying for the victim who gets no real justice. Stealing doesn’t seem like a big crime but remember that the criminal chose to attack someone and about half the time is prepared to kill to get what they want, you really never know what is in the mind of the thief. Now days though a criminal is given a slap on the hand or a little time in the lock-up where they get everything free, How is that justice for any victim? Justice and Fairness now have two different meaning. The court systems and Judges need to have a clear prospective from the victims point of view, if they can’t do that then they have failed in every way to provide the victim of any crime with the natural solution. 300 years ago a thief of any kind would probably be hanged, but 300 years ago the judges were easy victims also and had a better outlook on crime. Remember that a criminal is anyone who CHOOSES to break the law and deprive a person of their natural rights.

    13. When will we ever stop coddling these criminal scumbags? Not while liberals have their say in government. This country has become WAY too soft, and we are seeing the results of that. If there is no punishment, there is no incentive for honesty. Reap what you sow.

    14. I am 100% pro-2nd Amendment, an NRA member, etc. This does not look like a “good” shot in my opinion. The guy may be a dirt-bag thief, but he was trying to get away and did not present anything in the ways of trying to harm the gun owner. I know how the guy must have felt, but this shot was one of anger and not fear. Peace and God bless.
      6/31 Inf 9 Inf Div 69-70

      1. NOTE TO SELF: A likely illegal and felonious hispanic immigrant having stolen your hatchet and with said stolen hatchet in his hand is not to be considered a threat to ones life.

        CHECK. REALLY??

      2. @Dan K, Thank you for serving in our Army. The thief had a hatchet in his hand. Thief and victim were in close quarters, close enough that the hatchet is a stunningly good weapon. The thief could have easily turned on his targeted victim and used the hatchet to kill his chosen victim. So the thief did, in fact present a deadly threat.
        The jury is required to look at the facts through the shooters’s eyes to determine reasonableness. So in making an analysis one must not take the thief’s viewpoint or some uninvolved bystander’s view point or the viewpoint of the state or some liberal activist or legislator or what you want it to be. You must review the facts through the shooter’s eyes.

        1. Oldmarine Years of thinking about life and death
          There is a limit to everything in in life including life it’s self. It appears to me that the thief gambled his life by choosing to defy the owner who had a means (and the Only means ) of protecting his property.. According to the Constitution he had the right to protect his property. If the law says otherwise then it is repugnant to the Constitution therefore is not a law. This has already been decided in court ( MArbury vs. Madison, 5 US (2 Cranch) 137, 174, 176, (1803) ) So the victim of the theft has every Constitution right to protect his property. When looking at the crime it’s self you have to think seriously about what is the limit of said crime. Is there only a limit set by the criminal? Does the criminal have a right to take what he wants and as much as he wants? It could be that the crime has no limit under existing rulings. Few Judges today have a sense of Constitutional Right and Wrong making them do more harm than good. It’s really depressing to realize that criminals have so much power over the citizenry of this country. The one law that they forget about is Natural Law that can’t be broken but politicians and judges keep trying to violate this form of law. The law can NEVER regulate or control emotions. that is basically the very reason this country came into existence. If the Legal system can not contend with crime creating more criminals then eventually they will become obsolete and Juries of true peers will do their job for them. Remember that the word “PEERS” means equals. In this case that means the jury must be made up of people who have been in the same situation But judges will never let that happen, that is a law that judges themselves break almost every time the take on a case. To much talk without serious thought. >>> Oldmarine

    15. Taking property that is not yours is wrong. Taking a person’s life is wrong generally, except when it must be done to prevent loss of life or serious bodily harm to oneself or other innocents. I agree with the overall assessment presented in the article.
      Regarding the comment about it being legal to protect property in Texas with deadly force, that is only partially true. If it happens at night, there may be legal justification in Texas to use deadly force. This instance appears to be in daylight, so that legal justification would not apply.
      Presumably the Councilman business-owner is insured. While I certainly understand indignation and frustration with shoplifting, it is not justification in my mind to use deadly force. Unless there were environmental circumstances not shown on the video that weighed into the Councilman’s decision to use deadly force, I can’t see this as a “good shoot”. One man’s life was lost and another’s was irrevocably changed — likely for the worse — when the finger pressed the trigger — and all over an item which cost about as much as an OK meal.

      1. “Taking property that is not yours is wrong.”

        That is correct. This happened yesterday: I went to my bank branch to deposit a check in one account and withdraw $500.00 from another account. The teller was new enough that she asked for my ID. She took care of the deposit and while doing the withdrawal I told her that I would like three hundreds and the rest in twenties. She opened the drawer and took out the hundreds and some twenties and then opened another drawer and got out some more twenties. She counted the hundreds on the counter and then counted out the twenties. I quietly told her that I think she gave me too much and she might want to count it again. She picked the cash up and again counted the hundreds out and started on the twenties. When she got to $500.00 and still had $100.00 in twenties in her hand she had a shocked look on her face. I thanked her after she handed me the $500.00 and left. The look on her face was one of, “Did I screw up any other times today?”

        “Taking property that is not yours is wrong.”

      2. March, insurance has deductibles. I don’t believe insurance would cover that claim due to the low value. Also, you wouldn’t want to submit a claim for such a small amount. At what point is the theft(s) worthy of defense? In my prior post I commented about the straw that broke the camel’s back.

        If you lose so much that it results in the loss of your livelihood, allowing criminals to walk off with your property is okay? If you could no longer provide a home and food to your family, that’s okay because you didn’t harm the perp?

        I agree that it doesn’t appear justified. Also the perp didn’t appear to value his life much, struggling with someone that had a firearm pointed at him. My life is worth more than theft of a hatchet. He paid the ultimate price for his stupidity, regardless of any punishment the shooter may receive – that’s pretty damn dumb.

    16. Here in Oklahoma County the DA has said that it is open season on anyone breaking into your vehicle that is sitting in your driveway. This occurred in Nichols Hills which is a wealthy enclave within the OKC limits. The news outlets are generally all over something like this, especially channel 4. All you hear are crickets. There are indeed rules for “them” and other rules for us.

    17. So apparently there’s a question whether stealing something that is not yours is OK? It’s obvious a harsh note or verbal protest wouldn’t stop this dirtbag, so he’s supposed to let him go without protest? If that’s the case he might just as well open his store and let anyone walk away with it all. What the heck is this country coming to?

    18. I see it every day in Florida, parked cars blocking the roadway, children playing in the street, bikes riding against traffic, walking 5-7′ from the side of road, looks of indignation. The Mexicans sense of entitlement is incredible. Democrats have succeeded (quite intentionally ) in multiple divisive and depraved ways, bent towards the destruction of this country.

      1. dtom1955 has hit the nail on the head with three words…Sense of Entitlement !! I have spent 30+ years working outside. In the last 8 years, or so, I’ve noticed illegals just do as they please…and look at you, as to dare you, to say something. They intentionally block the Fire Lanes anywhere they shop ( so their Fat disgusting welfare tickets can waddle in and shop ) …pull sideways into 3 parking spots…(really proud of that $500 car..)
        The video shows an American defending his property…and a Damn Fine Job doing so. The low life illegal, NOT THE SHOOTER, decided how much his life was worth. Price of item has nothing to do with it. A nickle piece of candy or a $1000.00 TV… A Thief is a Thief. The Shooter should sue the state of Florida and the USA for $20-30 Million. Trauma..mental anguish..blah blah blah…Our States and Fed.’s are NOT doing their jobs, so SUE EM ! Dereliction of Duty ! Period.
        Anyone else noticed, when illegals come to an area,…you cant find a $500 car or a FAT white woman anywhere ?

      1. I think you’re right. No question you need to be able to protect your self and your property but there should b some degree of proportionality in your response. That didn’t happen here

    19. A criminal carrying a deadly weapon he just stole seems like imminent danger to anyone with 2 neurons connected. ( I guess that excludes Democrats ) He might have been on his way to slaughter some innocent family and the shop owner prevented that. Here in Texas one has the right to protect one’s life, another person or property with deadly force. I was not there so not second guessing the shop owner. I guess he did what he felt he had to do to protect himself.

      1. Every state should have laws protecting life,property,an other people’s property with deadly force. You will have some on here whining about,well it was just a $16 hatchet,but it was his,not the scumbag who tried to steal it. The owner has probably had shop lifters before an this one,his luck went south

        1. Oldmarine >>> Douglas Kuykendall
          For those saying it was just a $16 hatchet, is a statement made by Unthinking (ignorant) people.
          What if the thief wanted that gold tooth in you mouth? The statement “That it’s just a SOMETHING” have not realized that there is more to than meets the eye. Usually one thing leads to another and get more deadly at the same time. If the store owner didn’t have the gun I am sure the violence would have been the other way around. People have a habit of only seeing a happening from only one point of view. crime needs to be looked at more pragmatically because there is never only one solution to a crime. Crime will exist until the criminals realize that that path is a dead end for them the sad part is that as long as criminal have their way there will be many average people killed or maimed by them. I try to teach that there are least four solutions to any problem and at least eight ways to look at the problem. All are true to some degree so you have to look at any situation with both with and emotional and logical point of view. ignore one and the other will lead you to the wrong solution / answer . Something that should be explained to every jury in a trial. >>> Oldmarine

    20. I think this guy was hell bent on keeping what was his at any cost…. even shooting someone who was not a big threat ………..I might have had the thought that he was about to use it against me, but to take someones life ?, .. hope it works out for the store owner, he might have a lot of time to think about what he has done.

      1. Yes, for sure …….same thing with all that stuff George Washington did, would’ve been so much easier and cheaper had he just rolled over for England

    21. This occurred in Florida which recently had some “extreme” weather right? Can Lopez be considered a looter?

        1. Yeah I figured I was grasping at straws but ya never know, it might fly in front of the right jury. 🙂

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