Criminal Law Blog

Using flame to repel a trespasser is not necessarily unreasonable.


Jones v. United States (decided November 9, 2017)

Players: Associate Judges Glickman and Easterly. Senior Judge Pryor. Opinion by Judge Glickman. Rupa Ranga Puttangunta for the appellant. Trial Judge Ann O’Regan Keary.

Facts: Appellant, a homeless woman, regularly slept on a cardboard box on the floor of the McPherson Square metro station. One night, she set her box close to homeless man, who told her that he “didn’t want her there” and proceeded to kick appellant and put his feet on appellant’s box after appellant lay down. Appellant asked several times for the man to remove his feet and when he would not, appellant lit the corner of the box closest to appellant’s feet on fire. The box did not burst into flame, but rather burned slowly like a cigarette. When the man did not move his feet, appellant extinguished the fire so that the man’s feet would not burn. Following a bench trial, a judge found appellant guilty of simple assault and attempted possession of prohibited weapon. The judge rejected appellant’s defense of property justification, reasoning that the force applied—fire—was not reasonable.

Issue: Was there sufficient evidence to support appellant’s convictions and overcome appellant’s defense of property justification? Was appellant’s use of force in lighting her cardboard box on fire unreasonable?

Holding: No. Appellant repeatedly requested that the man move his feet before igniting the box, which was for legal purposes her bed. No officers were around to help. Appellant neither harmed nor attempted to harm anyone in the process. The fire was too small and slow progressing to pose a risk to the trespasser.

Of note: Jones marks the second time in 2017 that the Court of Appeals rejected the notion that a certain kind of force (fire) was so unreasonable as to negate a justification defense. In the first case, Parker v. United States, 155 A.3d 835 (D.C. 2017), the Court found that spitting was not an unreasonable response to being threatened and spat upon. These cases reaffirm the government’s burden to prove that the force applied in a given case was not reasonably necessary under the circumstances as they appeared to the defendant. WC

Read the full opinion here.