Answer Man: What could happen if you shoot an intruder?

News-DemocratApril 7, 2014 

I have a quest for you. When I was in high school, I remember a story about an Iowa farmer who booby-trapped a farmhouse with a shotgun and wound up shooting an intruder. But the burglar sued the farmer and won, sparking a national debate about using deadly force to protect property. I've been trying to find this to use in my criminal law class at Harris-Stowe State University, but no luck! -- Catherine Stoltz, of Belleville

On a hot summer night in 1967 outside Eddyville, Iowa, junk collector Marvin Katko was on his own quest.

It was a treasure hunt that would cost Katko a large chunk of his lower leg and the frustrated farmer a good piece of his land. It also would have residents of this town of 1,000 debating the issue and switching allegiances for years.

And it wouldn't be the last time someone booby-trapping his property ended up on the wrong side of the law.

Hunting for old fruit jars, Katko, then 28, figured a deserted house on Edward Briney's farm was the perfect mark. Filled with antique furniture left by Briney's parents, it was a popular target of burglars. Even Katko admitted later he had broken in before.

But after more than three dozen break-ins, Briney had had his fill. So he tied Old Betsy -- his shotgun -- to a bedpost, rigged a tripwire from the trigger to a doorknob and aimed the barrel at a burglar's feet.

"I would have aimed it at his belly button, but my wife talked me out of it," Briney told People magazine in 1975.

He figured he had the right to do it, especially given his long string of losses.

"It seems to me that a boarded-up house ought to be like a bank," he said. "It shouldn't make any difference if you live there or not. A man's got to have a right to protect his property."

When Katko opened the door, Old Betsy went off, ripping away a good portion of his left leg above the ankle. It left him with a 21/2-inch dent in his shin, pellets forever embedded in his calf and a permanent limp.

"I've been a Lutheran all my life," he told People. "I never even drank or smoked. This is just a case of where curiosity got the cat, and I was the cat. Hell, I was dead wrong. I know I maybe got what I deserved. A lot of folks still think it's too bad it didn't blow my head off."

Katko eventually pleaded guilty to petty larceny, paid a $50 fine and returned to pumping gas at his father's DX station. Folks in Eddyville figured that would be the end of it. But facing $3,200 in medical bills, Katko says one of Briney's neighbors suggested he sue the old farmer.

Katko did and won $30,000 in a judgment that eventually was upheld by the Iowa Supreme Court. The justices ruled that while Briney could have defended himself with his shotgun had he felt threatened, using deadly force on intruders in an unoccupied property was neither reasonable nor justified.

Now, many legal eagles say Katko v. Briney helped establish the principle that although landowners have no duty to make their property safe for trespassers, they may not set deadly traps. "The law has always placed a higher value upon human safety than upon mere rights in property" the court ruled

But others continue to learn that lesson the hard way:

In 1999, Lenny Miller was tired of his cabin in the remote woods of northern Wisconsin being burglarized, so he rigged his 12-gauge shotgun to shoot the legs of any intruder. It worked -- and Miller wound up with a six-month jail sentence and $14,000 in fines and court costs for his $5 booby trap. Circuit Judge Edward Brunner accused him of "taking us back to the days of the Wild West" and "vigilante justice."

And in 2005, Greg Hutchings had much of his left arm blown away when he encountered a similarly booby-trapped house in Sparta, Tenn. I haven't found the disposition of this case, but I'm betting it didn't go well for the homeowner.

But here's a fascinating postscript: To pay his judgment, Briney sold 80 of his 120 acres by auction. Three neighbors bought the land to hold for Briney because they felt that the farmer surely would win his appeal.

He didn't, so one of the neighbors sold his share to his son for a profit. Guess what? Briney and Katko teamed up to sue the three neighbors for the amount of the profit, which left townspeople really scratching their heads. The case reportedly was settled in an amount sufficient to pay the remainder of Briney's judgment to Katko.

As for Briney, he told the Chicago Tribune in 1975, "There's one thing I'd do different, though. I'd have aimed that gun a few feet higher."

Today's trivia

What TV series starring Henry Fonda used the 1959 hit "Primrose Lane" as its theme song?

Answer to Sunday's trivia: The U.S. Navy has had three ships named the USS Renshaw in its history -- a new schooner seized in 1862 in North Carolina and pressed into Union service; a Wickes-class destroyer from 1918 to 1936; and a Fletcher-class destroyer from 1942 to 1970, which took part in the 1965 movie "In Harm's Way." They were named to honor Navy Cmdr. William Renshaw, who died in 1863 when he set fire to his flagship during the Second Battle of Galveston.

Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427 or rschlueter@bnd.com or call 618-239-2465.

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