Monday, July 28, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

If NYC biker attack occurred here, SUV driver protected by PA's 'Castle Doctrine'

Imagine driving north on Roosevelt Boulevard or Delaware Avenue and suddenly you're surrounded by an unruly bunch of motorcyclists who seem bent on violence — and you're their target.

Or perhaps you've cut another driver off, sending the other person into an irrational bout of road rage. They then cut you off at a light and get out of their car with some of their passengers and begin damaging your vehicle and threatening your life.

Can you use any means necessary to get away? Even if it means stepping on the gas and blowing through the motorcycles blocking your way or the vehicle blocking your escape?

On the roads of Philadelphia and the rest of Pennsylvania, the answer is likely yes.

Days after a driver behind the wheel of an SUV plowed through a group of motorcyclists blocking his path on a New York City highway, questions abound about the rights of a motorist who feels his life is threatened and whether the often-contentious legal term known as Castle Doctrine extends beyond the home to the motor vehicle.

The New York SUV driver has not been charged, though one of the motorcyclists has reportedly been left paralyzed. Another uninjured biker has been charged with reckless driving and unlawful imprisonment. The SUV also was occupied by the driver's wife and young child.

If the same circumstances occurred on Roosevelt Boulevard or Delaware Avenue, a driver would be able to use the Castle Doctrine defense, according to a spokeswoman for the Philadelphia District Attorney's office.

"The Castle Doctrine could be applied because the driver had no ability to retreat safely without possibly experiencing bodily harm," DA spokeswoman Tasha Jamerson said in an email. "Since his car was surrounded, there was nowhere for him to go, and he feared for his safety. Yes, if this incident had occurred in [Pennsylvania], the Castle Doctrine could apply."

Only recently have Pennsylvania drivers received such strong protection under the Castle Doctrine.

The laws that fall under a person's right to protect themselves against intruders on private property were greatly expanded in 2011 by the state Legislature to motor vehicles and public spaces. The laws previously only protected homeowners who had exhausted all means of retreat.

A stipulation that previously required an effort by a homeowner to attempt to retreat to safety before using deadly force against an intruder was also eliminated.

"Persons residing in or visiting this Commonwealth have a right to expect to remain unmolested within their homes or vehicles," the 2011 House Bill 40 reads. "No person should be required to surrender his or her personal safety to a criminal, nor should a person be required to needlessly retreat in the face of intrusion or attack outside the person's home or vehicles."

The most recent case in Pennsylvania involving the Castle Doctrine defense occurred in late March when a Berks County man shot another man banging on the front door of his mobile home. The suspected intruder was reportedly trying to see the homeowner's adult daughter. After three or four warnings to leave, the homeowner shot the man, wounding him.

Simple assault and reckless endangerment charges against the shooter were dropped, according to reports in July.  The Castle Doctrine was cited.


Contact Brian X. McCrone at 215-854-2267 or bmccrone@philly.com. Follow @brianxmccrone on Twitter.

Contact the Breaking News Desk at 215-854-2443; BreakingNewsDesk@philly.com. Follow @phillynews on Twitter.

Brian X. McCrone PHILLY.COM
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