Your long hard day of cooking and serving pizzas has stretched well into the evening. But business is good, and the customers are happy. As you work the counter taking money, making change and helping people, you notice there is one guy, looking kind of shabby, hanging around. He’s eaten his slice and refilled his drink a couple of times but has shown no interest in leaving. He’s not really menacing anyone; he just seems out of place. But you have your sidearm resting in an IWB holster under your shirt. Your apron string sometimes gets in the way, but you have practiced enough to know you can get to your gun if you need it.
A young mom with three kids comes in and tries to wrangle her tribe in front of the counter as she makes her order. Kids are fidgeting and being kids, Mom is struggling to find her debit card, and, without a word, you are hit in the face with a drink cup full of Diet Coke and ice. As you shake off the liquid and regain your wits, you see the shabby-looking guy running for the door, holding the tip jar you had sitting on the counter. A day’s worth of tips is easily a couple hundred bucks, and you are quickly giving chase. You shout, “Call the police,” as you bolt through the door.
The thief makes a left out the door and sprints down the sidewalk, making another left into a nearby alley. He’s got some distance on you, but you seem to be gaining as he trips on a trash can and goes down. He comes up holding what appears to be a piece of narrow pipe or a small metal rod, maybe three-quarters of an inch in diameter and 2 feet long. The tip jar is on the ground near his feet. What now?
- Break out your cellphone and call 911.
- Draw your gun, aim at the thief, give a verbal warning and be prepared to fire.
- Keep your gun in the holster and tell the thief you just want your tip money back.
- Grab a nearby trash can lid to use as a shield and prepare for a fight.
Things to Consider:
Shouting to your co-workers to call the police as you rushed through the door likely did very little to help them understand what was going on. Unless they saw the incident, they will have very little information to provide to the dispatcher during the call. Right now, it is up to you to get help heading your way. Opening a line to 911 is always a good option, but remember you have a person who poses a potential threat right in front of you. Make sure you are keeping your strong hand free in case you feel the need to draw your gun.
It is important that you know where you are when speaking with a dispatcher, so make sure you can give detailed information about your location, a description of the thief, a description of yourself and information about what happened. Remember, you may have to be talking to the dispatcher and the criminal at the same time. Be ready to drop the phone and fight if you need to.
Is Deadly Force Justified?
Right now, with your level of frustration and elevated emotions, it might be very easy to consider pulling your gun. The thief does have what appears to be a weapon, but how do your local laws impact your actions? It appears that you can reasonably believe the person has the means and opportunity to do you harm. But there are a multitude of questions surrounding this. Did your pursuit of the thief change the dynamic? He will certainly claim that he only grabbed the piece of metal because he thought that you were about to attack and injure him. Remember, you may only use deadly force against an imminent deadly threat. A man running away from you does not pose such a threat. Your pursuit of that man will likely mean that prosecutors see YOU as the person posing the greatest threat in this situation.
If you draw your gun at this point, you are now, for all intents and purposes, holding, or attempting to hold, someone at gunpoint who was only trying to get away with a jar filled with cash. While it may be distasteful to you, at this point it appears there is no legal justification for the use of deadly force. And worse yet, you have likely created a situation whereby you could now be viewed as the aggressor in the eyes of the law. Remember, in most states, you are not allowed to use deadly force in defense of property. Even though the thief now has a weapon in hand, it will likely be argued that the only reason he grabbed that weapon is because you were chasing him, and he felt as though you were about to harm him.
You’ve got your bad guy in an alley. He has your money and he has some sort of club to hit you with, but you still want your money. It looks like we have entered the negotiation phase.
In most states, you are allowed to use reasonable force to prevent interference with your property or your person. Understand that the decision of what is “objectively reasonable” is not up to you at this point. Investigators, prosecutors and possibly a judge and a jury will be making the determination as to what level of force is reasonable. And, think about this: They will be making that determination AFTER you have used that force to get your money back. This means you have very little room for error at the time of the incident. You have a few seconds to decide, but the legal system will take months to second-guess your actions.
Opening a Dialogue
Maybe you can talk to this guy.
Most sneak thieves, like this guy appears to be, don’t want trouble. That’s why he grabbed the money and ran rather than approaching the counter with a gun or a knife to carry out an armed robbery. Maybe a few sharp words will put him into flight again. Maybe try, “Leave the jar and get the hell out of here. It’s not worth it.” He might fall for it. Criminals are not so bright sometimes.
There are likely some weapons of opportunity in that alley that you could use to your advantage if the situation were to become physical, but keep in mind the legal questions that will surround your actions. You chased this guy into an alley. Who will be judged as the aggressor will be open to debate, and you can bet lawyers will debate it. You and your freedom will be at the center of that debate. Escalating the actions here opens you up to lots of potential problems, including injury, if you lose the fight.
Think about that for a minute. Will you win the fight? Just because someone has stolen from you does not mean you will be able to defeat that person in a fight. Most people who are resorting to crime will have more experience fighting than you do. You’ve trained to use your gun, but have you trained in empty-hand defense techniques? Are you proficient enough to stop a desperate attacker? Give yourself an honest evaluation of your skills and physical ability.
In the End
Maybe you can use bluff and bluster to get your money, or maybe you can’t. I would advocate being ready to leave the money and retreat if it came right down to it. As frustrating as it is to have some lowlife steal from you, all the legal questions swirling around this scenario make it a losing proposition. The money in that jar likely amounts to less than the cost of one hour with a good criminal defense attorney. You have a family and a business to think about. If you end up on the wrong side of the law, you could lose everything.
*This scenario was taken directly from a news story in Ohio. The pizza shop owner caught up to the bandit and fired a shot that missed. He was subsequently convicted of three different felonies and will be heading to prison.
It is self-defense, not stuff defense. Someone takes your money and runs away. What would you do?
About Kevin Michalowski
Executive Editor of Concealed Carry Magazine Kevin Michalowski is a USCCA and NRA Certified Trainer. He has attended training as both instructor and student in multiple disciplines, including pistol, rifle, shotgun, empty-hand defense and rapid response to the active shooter. Kevin is also a fully certified part-time law enforcement officer in rural Wisconsin.