In the hit movie “Home Alone,” Macaulay Culkin went to great lengths to keep burglars Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern from robbing his home. Culkin’s character rigged the house with numerous booby traps, injuring the thieves many times over.
If we real-life homeowners tried that, and a robber or two was hurt because of the traps we laid, chances are good that we could be sued by the bad guys and maybe end up in jail ourselves.
According to the law, homeowners can use “reasonable force” to defend their properties from theft, violent attack on their person, or other types of unlawful aggression. The doctrine is often used as a defense in criminal trials and lawsuits.
But when someone uses excessive force, they are considered to have forfeited their right to use the law as a defense.
In cases of trespass, the lawful occupant of the property must demand the intruder leave. If they don’t exit, the occupant can then use reasonable force to make the bad guy depart. If they still don’t go, the occupant is permitted to raise the level of force. It is up to the thief to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that you used more force than was reasonable and necessary.
The good news is that burglars go out of their way to avoid bumping into occupants. Indeed, many will abandon a robbery attempt because they heard someone in the house or returning home, or hide to avoid discovery.
Fortunately, encounters are rare. Even though some burglars know the law regarding reasonable force, they often make several checks of the property to make sure they don’t meet anyone in the hall or coming down the steps, rifle in hand.
Even though the number of burglaries decreased 4.6 percent from 2015 to 2016, there were still 1.5 million that year, according to the FBI. Burglaries accounted for 19 percent of 2016’s known property crimes, with victims incurring $3.6 billion in losses.
And according to robbery expert Alan Young, thieves have discovered that “better” suburban neighborhoods are theirs for the taking; crime is no longer a problem relegated to “bad areas.”
“It’s pretty simple: Thieves have finally figured out that people in better areas have more things that are worth stealing,” says Young. He experienced repeated break-ins when rehabbing properties in the Nashville area, and went on to make protecting people and their homes his life’s work. With his engineer brother, he formed Armor Concepts to produce economical ways to secure residences.
Many homeowners install expensive alarm systems and keep a gun on the nightstand. But Young isn’t a fan of either option.
He points out that alarms only work once the intruder breaks down a window or door. Most robbers can be in and out in five minutes, he says, while police response time is often four times that long. And guns only work if you are home, and if the gun is handy at the crucial moment.
Young’s advice: Be proactive instead of reactive. “Take steps to keep (burglars) out in the first place,” he says.
Here are some steps you can take to protect yourself and your family:
-- I personally am not a gun fan, so I don’t recommend them. But I do like dogs, especially big ones that bark loudly at the slightest sound outside. They are great deterrents; thieves don’t like running into dogs any more than humans.
Absent a real dog, try running a continuous-loop recording of a dog barking. Not constant barking, but a loud, large woof every minute or two -- enough to keep the burglars away. Or try an outdoor device that triggers the recorded barking.
-- Secure your doors and windows. Make it harder for the bad guys to get in -- hard enough that they’ll decide to move on to a different target.
-- If you are gone for any period of time, consider a house sitter. That way, someone really will be home. At the very least, have a neighbor pick up your newspapers, mail and deliveries, or put them on hold until you return. Nothing says “I’m not here” like packages piling up on the porch. If you do hire a sitter, ask them to park their car in your driveway.
-- Put a timer on a couple of lamps, setting them to come on at dusk and go off at, say, midnight. To guard against power outages, consider solar timers.
-- Leave the light above your kitchen range on at all times. The kitchen is one room that tends to have lights on the most.
-- Exterior lights should be on motion sensors or timers, and mounted high enough so they can’t be reached without a ladder. A thief usually won’t put up a ladder because it is too conspicuous.
-- Put your TV on a timer so it goes on and off in the afternoon and again in the evening. Or at least leave a radio on -- to a talk station, as opposed to music. The broken pattern of human speech is more consistent with someone being at home.
-- If you have a landline, turn down your phone’s ringer so a long series of unanswered rings doesn’t draw attention. Your answering machine’s (or voicemail’s) message should be along the lines of, “We can’t get to the phone right now,” rather than “We’re out of town, but will call you back Tuesday!” And check your machine occasionally from wherever you are, so it doesn’t fill up -- tipping off callers that no one’s been home in a while.