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When can you put booby traps on your property?

May 17, 2017

The jerry-rigged booby trap has been a staple of fiction for decades.  Home Alone. Indiana Jones.  Dungeons & Dragons.  And from time to time, a property holder decides that lethal or potentially lethal force is appropriate to try to secure their property.  Someone, whether an intruder, a guest, or the landowner, gets hurt (or killed), and a lawsuit gets filed, in addition to any potential criminal charges.  This leads us to the question: when is it legal to put booby traps on your property?  

The short answer: mechanical devices that can cause death or serious bodily harm to an intruder are not okay.  Booby traps, like mantraps, spring guns (that is, firearms tied to a tripwire), and snares, have been heavily regulated and banned to one extent or another since 1825.  The legal logic behind this is fairly simple and boils down to two strains of thought.  First, the law generally recognizes that life is more valuable than property, and by using booby traps it raises the possibility that disproportionate force will be used to defend property.  Second, booby traps have no way of determining whether someone is lawfully present on property.  Booby traps can’t distinguish between a burglar breaking in, a policeman serving a warrant, or an animal in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Traps make it harder for emergency workers to do their jobs, and raise the possibility of tragic accidents.  And they can lead to criminal charges if someone gets hurt.The consequences for booby-trapping your property aren’t just limited to the actual harm done to the booby-trap victim.  They can also lead to extremely expensive lawsuits — in the 1971 Iowa case that is standard reading on the subject, Iowa landowner Edward Briney set up a 20-gauge shotgun in an abandoned building he owned.  Marvin Katko broke into the abandoned building to steal old bottles in the house, and was shot, not fatally, by the shotgun trap.  Katko pled guilty to larceny, but he sued Briney anyway, eventually winning a judgment of $30,000, or $181,000 in 2017 dollars.

This is in addition to any criminal charges that might get filed.  A trap is “absolutely incapable of exercising discretion or reason. Rather, it sentences its victim to death or great bodily injury in a split second explosion of deadly force.”  Because of that possibility, police, prosecutors and the courts are absolutely willing to press charges against people who booby-trap their property.

Don’t do it!  Instead, if you’re concerned about protecting your property, consider installing a security system with cameras, signage warning would-be criminals to keep out, and physical barriers that don’t pose hazards to life and limb.  MySecuritySign can help you out with that!

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Category: Property, security, Trespassing

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