Law Professor: 'Myths Abound' In North Carolina Self-Defense Law

Aug 12, 2016

Chad Copley, 39, is charged with murder in the death of 20 year old Kouren-Rodney Thomas.
Credit Wake County Sheriff's Office

Raleigh resident Chad Copley is facing first-degree murder charges in the death of Kouren-Rodney Thomas. UNC law professor Joseph Kennedy said given the facts released so far about the shooting, it doesn't appear to fall under state laws authorizing the use of deadly force.

Investigators say Copley, a white man, shot Thomas, an African-American man, from his garage while Thomas and his friend were walking through the neighborhood on Singleleaf Lane around 1 a.m. on Sunday.

Just before the shooting, a caller from Singleleaf Lane complained to a 911 dispatcher that "hoodlums" were vandalizing his neighborhood, and he said he thought they were armed.

Caller: We've had a bunch of hoodlums out here racing. I am locked and loaded. I’m going outside to secure my neighborhood. You need to send P.D. as quickly as possible.

Dispatcher: I'm sorry, you're going out to do what to the neighborhood, sir?

Caller: I'm going to secure the neighborhood. I'm on neighborhood watch. I'm going to have the neighbors with me. There's hoodlums out here racing up and down the street. It's 1 a.m. There's some vandalism, they have firearms and we're going to secure our neighborhood. If I were you I'd send P.D as quickly as possible.

North Carolina has laws that authorize the use of deadly force when a victim's life or home is being threatened, but Kennedy said it doesn't seem likely those would apply in this case.

"Your home is your castle, but it's not a snipers nest," said Kennedy. "If someone attacks you in your home, you can defend yourself. But you can't attack people from your home, unless you have reasonable fear of imminent bodily harm."

In a separate 911 call afterwards, the caller said he fired a warning shot.

Caller: I yelled at them, please leave the premises. They were showing a firearm, so I fired a warning shot and we got somebody that got hit.

Dispatcher: Somebody was shot?

Caller: Well, I don't know if they were shot or not, ma'am. I fired my warning shot like I'm supposed to by law. They do have firearms and I'm trying to protect myself and my family.

Kennedy noted there’s no such thing as a warning shot in the eyes of the law.

"There's no special exception in the laws for self defense for so-called warning shots," said Kennedy, adding that firing a weapon at someone is generally considered felonious assault.

"Self-defense law is one area where myths seem to abound," Kennedy went on. "People have all kinds of misconceptions about what the law actually is. The basic principles are simple: you don’t get to shoot at people unless you are in mortal danger."

At a press conference Thursday, an attorney for Thomas's family said the shooting of a young black man by a white gunman claiming self-defense recalls the 2012 death of Travyon Martin at the hands of George Zimmerman. Zimmerman was later acquitted at trial.

Copley is being held in the Wake County Jail without bond. His next court hearing is scheduled for August 29.