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As often happens as storms approach and residents and business owners evacuate, the signs get posted: "Looters Will Be Shot." Most people just chuckle, a few people get worried about armed vigilantes, and a few others think, "they'll get what they deserve." And while the First Amendment may protect your right to free speech (be careful -- threatening to kill someone can get you into trouble), do you actually have the legal right to shoot someone for looting?
Here's a look:
True and credible murder threats are illegal. But it is unlikely such a vague warning sign, alone, would rise to that level. So that bar in Myrtle Beach and others who post "Looters Will Be Shot" signs likely won't get into trouble for posting the sign, if that's all they do.
Even in states with "stand your ground" laws, there are limits on when deadly force is allowed. Some states have a duty to retreat, which requires people to retreat from the threat as much as possible before responding with force. But nearly all states limit the use of deadly force under stand your ground laws to defending yourself in the face of great bodily harm or death, not your storefront. So, shooting someone who may kill or seriously injure you might be defensible, but shooting a person who steals from your store may not be.
Many states also employ what's known as the "castle doctrine," which, while similar to stand your ground, is limited to real property like your home or, in some states, your place of business. Generally speaking, the castle doctrine simply removes the duty to retreat if you are already in your house or store. However, the threat of death or personal injury must still be present before you can respond with lethal force.
So, even though you might not get into trouble for posting a "Looters Will Be Shot" sign, you may get in trouble for shooting looters. According to some reports, New Orleans police officers were authorized to shoot looters in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. But some of those officers were convicted of murder for doing exactly that.
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