Missouri road rage case ruled self-defense, no charges filed

Tuesday, June 12, 2012 | 4:39 p.m. CDT; updated 6:32 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, June 12, 2012

ST. LOUIS — By all accounts, it was road rage in the extreme: A 65-year-old Missouri driver in a heated exchange with a motorcyclist got punched in the face, pulled a semi-automatic handgun from the glove box and shot the other man.

The incident left the motorcyclist injured and the driver shaken. But the prosecuting attorney will not press charges, citing Missouri's "castle doctrine" law.

About 30 states have "stand your ground" or "castle doctrine" laws, which drew increased scrutiny earlier this year following the shooting death of Florida teen Trayvon Martin by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman, who claims self-defense.

Missouri's law allows occupants to use deadly force when someone invades their home or vehicle, making them feel threatened.

St. Charles County prosecutor Jack Banas said Tuesday that the driver essentially felt trapped when the motorcyclist walked up and punched him.

"When you start approaching people in a car, it does heighten your sense of fear," Banas said. "You don't know what he's going to do."

The names of those involved in the skirmish were not released. The motorcyclist was shot in the chest but survived and is recovering, albeit with a bullet permanently lodged near his shoulder. Banas declined to press charges against him, either.

The confrontation happened May 26 in O'Fallon, a St. Charles County town about 30 miles west of St. Louis. The driver was in a car with his wife and 9-year-old grandson. Two motorcycles pulled up alongside, driven by a 49-year-old St. Louis County man and his wife. When all three vehicles tried to make a left turn into the same lane, there was a near collision and an exchange of words.

After the vehicles stopped at another light, the male motorcyclist walked up the driver's side window of the car. As he did, the driver pulled a semiautomatic .380-caliber handgun from the glove box and placed it in his lap — unbeknownst to the motorcyclist. The argument escalated — both sides said they were spit upon.

Eventually, the motorcyclist punched the driver in the face. The driver then fired a single shot, drove his wife and grandson home and then went to the police station.

The motorcyclist "was lucky," Banas said. "If that shot had been a few inches another way, he wouldn't be around."

Missouri lawmakers expanded the castle doctrine law in 2007 to include intrusions into vehicles. Kevin Jamison, a Kansas City-area attorney who lobbied for the bill as a member of the Western Missouri Shooters Alliance, said the change was made to help stop carjackings and other assaults inside vehicles.

"These things are unfortunate and tragic," Jamison said. "The prosecutor was quite correct: This was a castle doctrine case. This man was being attacked in a place he had a right to be — in his car."

But Brian Malte, spokesman for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said the presence of a gun escalated the violence.

"This takes what can be an argument and turns it into something that could be deadly," Malte said. He said laws like Missouri's castle doctrine "allow people to be the judge, jury and executioner, and that's not the kind of society we think Missourians ... or the rest of America wants to live in."

Jamison, who teaches firearm safety, said in most cases when the victim shows a gun, the attacker surrenders or runs. "It is extremely rare that you shoot somebody in self-defense," he said.

Still, Jamison said he has represented about six people involved in self-defense shootings, and all of them suffered mental anguish, even though they broke no laws.

"No one is ever happy about it," he said.

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