Massachusetts Appeals Court Declines to Adopt “Stand Your Ground” Rule

The Massachusetts Appeals Court today upheld a man’s gun and assault convictions, rejecting his claim that the Massachusetts rule that required him to retreat before using force in self-defense violated his constitutional rights.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Leoner-Aguirre

In April of 2014, the defendant and another man were walking through Chelsea in the middle of the afternoon when they encountered the victim and his friend on Broadway Street.  The  defendant confronted the victim for allegedly being involved in the stabbing of the defendant’s friend.  During the ensuing fight, the victim tried to hit the defendant with an unidentified object, but then saw the defendant brandish a gun.  After the defendant threatened to kill him, the victim turned around and began to run away.  The defendant shot at the victim twice, hitting him once in the buttocks.  During a subsequent police investigation, the defendant said either the victim or his friend had dropped a gun during the fight and he (the defendant) had picked it up, shot it once, and then hidden it in his bag.  The defendant acknowledged he had fired the gun in anger, repeatedly saying, “I got mad.”  A Suffolk Superior Court jury convicted the defendant of several crimes, including: unlawfully possessing a loaded gun; assault and battery with a dangerous weapon; and assault with intent to kill.  The defendant appealed and the Appeals Court affirmed.

At trial, the defendant argued self-defense.  The trial judge properly instructed the jury that in Massachusetts, a defendant has the legal duty to retreat prior to using deadly force if he can do so in a safe manner.  In other words, before a defendant uses force against another person to defend himself, he is first obligated to attempt to escape the situation altogether.  Clearly the defendant did not attempt to retreat here, as the victim was shot in the buttocks (proving the was walking or running away from the defendant at the time of the shooting) and the defendant acknowledged to the police he shot the victim because he was mad (and not in fear).  Nevertheless, the defendant argued Massachusetts’ duty to retreat rule restricts his constitutional right to defend himself.  The defendant relied on recent United States Supreme Court cases that held a state cannot enact a total ban on handgun possession in the home.  The defendant argued that if the Supreme Court granted the right to possess a gun in the home, the Constitution must also authorize a person to use the gun in self-defense, even if he could retreat.  The Appeals Court responded that there is “no basis in law or history” for the defendant’s argument.  The defendant was requesting that the Appeals Court enact a “stand your ground” rule, notwithstanding the fact that the Massachusetts Legislature has not passed such a law.  The Court concluded no Supreme Court case has required Massachusetts (or any other state) to abandon the long-standing rule that a person must take reasonable steps to retreat before using physical force against another person.

This was a lousy self-defense case.  The defendant was in possession of an unlicensed gun and he shot at a person on a busy street in the middle of the day, hitting him in the buttocks.  According to media reports, the defendant was sentenced to 4-5 years in state prison on this case, but is also in the midst of serving a 19-year federal sentence for participating in crimes while serving in the leadership of the MS-13 gang.