U.S. Law Shield: Can I Use Force Against Someone Burglarizing My Car?

Emily Taylor, an attorney at the law firm of Walker & Byington and a Texas Law Shield attorney

What can you do if someone is breaking into your vehicle while you’re at your house? Well, first of all, in case you were wondering what this crime is called, it’s burglary of a motor vehicle. Now, that’s what makes this discussion interesting, because as you may already know, you can have the right to respond with deadly force when someone is committing a burglary against your property. The problem here is that the statute only reads burglary, and there are multiple different kinds of burglary in the state of Texas.

Emily Taylor, an attorney at the law firm of Walker & Byington and a Texas Law Shield attorney
Emily Taylor, an attorney at the law firm of Walker & Byington and a Texas Law Shield attorney

The different types of burglary include: burglary of the habitation, burglary of a building, burglary of a coin-operated machine, and, of course, our topic today, burglary of a motor vehicle. Because the statute doesn’t specify which kind of burglary you can respond to with deadly force, we’re kind of at a loss legally.

The problem here is that there’s no controlling case law that says that you are allowed to use deadly force against a burglar who’s breaking into your car. I know you’re probably thinking I’ve seen it on the news. I’ve heard anecdotes about people who shoot at someone who’s burglarizing their car and that shooter doesn’t get arrested. Nothing terrible happens to them; they’re allowed to go on about their lives.

I’ve heard those anecdotes, too; the problem is that because we don’t have case law that controls if you use deadly force against someone who’s burglarizing your vehicle, you could be put in the position of being the test case for whether or not that behavior is allowed under Texas law.

If someone’s breaking into your vehicle in the nighttime, the law becomes much more clear. Texas statutes say that you can, if you act reasonably, use deadly force against someone committing a theft during the nighttime.

The person who’s breaking into your vehicle is doing so presumably to commit a theft of what’s inside, so if you witness this activity in the night time, so long as you’re acting reasonably, as determined by potentially a judge or a jury, you can have the right in Texas to use deadly force against that person day or night.

You always have the right to use force against the person who’s committing the burglary of a motor vehicle. Use of force can look like a lot of different things, could look like anything from verbal commands to stop to actually physically going over and stopping the person with your hands, engaging them physically with your hands.

It could look like everything up into pointing a firearm at someone, so the question becomes, could you point your gun at someone and hold them at gunpoint until the police arrived because they’ve been burglarizing your motor vehicle? Well, that would be a use of force, and a use of force can be justified in this instance. But keep in mind, your use of force has to be reasonable, it has to be immediately necessary, and it should be proportional to the amount of force that the person is perpetrating against you.

So while holding someone at gunpoint is potentially something that you’re allowed to do when they’re burglarizing your motor vehicle, keep in mind that the ultimate authority on whether or not that’s allowed is potentially a jury at trial, or a judge.

Do you know the laws in your state or whether there is case law regarding motor vehicle burglary in state? Share your state and answers in the comment section.

In this excerpt from a U.S. Law Shield News live report, watch Emily Taylor, independent program attorney with Walker & Byington, discuss the ground rules for carrying firearms into restaurants and bars. Click the video below to find out the significant differences between blue signs and red signs in Texas establishments, and how getting those colors crossed up could lead to some orange jumpsuit time.   If you would like to see these reports live on Facebook, click here to join the Texas Law Shield Facebook page and sign up for live notifications.
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Comments (39)

  1. In Texas lethal force may be used in defense of property under certain circumstances, primarily, if the crime is being committed at night.

    You really do need to know the law.

  2. I dont know the law here in SC but I have caught 2 men breaking into cars including my friend Andy’s at 3am after coming home from a club. My other friend Jason got out of passenger side and snuck around other parked cars and surprised them. They both ran in my direction while I was hiding behind another car and was able to trip one of them and draw on him, the other kept running. The neighbor heard all the noise and came outside to yell at us and tell us he was calling the police (this was pre cell phone days). The police show up while im still drawn on him and tell me to put it down and away. Then they arrested him and asked if he could come inside to clean himself before they put him in their car! No I dont want him inside! He had shit in his pants, so I gave them newspaper for him to sit on. Anyways I did not get into any trouble at all, in fact I got no credit what so ever when it was posted in the news. They had been trying to catch these guys for months. I dont think people in SC can use a firearm to protect a vehicle from being stolen unless they are in it but Id like to hear what others from SC say.

  3. Most people breaking into cars at night do so by breaking a window. The best thing you can do to stop them is to shoot them in the leg. It is non-lethal usually and they can’t run off very easily without leaving an easy to follow blood trail. Be nice to your thief and call them an ambulance while you are contacting the authorities about the theft and your shooting them to protect your property. I don’t want to kill anyone breaking into my car at night, but neither do I want see them run away only to try it again to me or one of my neighbors. Thou Shall Not Steal or be shot in the leg. Maybe the thieves will eventually learn to be afraid.

    1. Terry, please check the use of lethal force laws in your state. Shooting to wound may work on TV and in the movies but in real life doing so, a shooter will most likely end up in jail. At the very least, the civil suit will bankrupt the shooter. Legal defense fees can run upwards of $50-100k. Lethal force is only justified when being used for protection of Life and/or preventing sexual assault. Check you state laws on use of lethal force.

  4. One thing I find interesting in all of this discussion, is the lack of mention of castle doctrine. In some states, Kentucky being one, the castle doctrine is extended to your vehicle. Simply put, if someone is attempting to force entrance into your vehicle in Kentucky, you are justified to use deadly force. Now, I am aware that this does not apply in all states. I am only using Kentucky as an example. It would behoove each person to know and understand the laws on their own state or the state they happen to be in. They are different.

  5. In California, protection of your life and/or the lives of others. Period! (You must be able to prove that your actions are reasonable and justifiable).

  6. In New Jersey, The force defendant is using must be immediately necessary – in other words the defendant must believe that the unlawful force will be used against him at the time that he acts;

    the force used against the defendant must be unlawful – this defense is not available to the aggressor;

    the amount of force which the defendant uses must be necessary – this defense is unavailable if the actor is unreasonable in his belief about the amount of force necessary and if acting on this unreasonable belief the actor uses an excessive amount of force.

  7. It is a simple thing to protect your valuables. You simply have to make sure you are in danger. One way is to confront the burglar at a safe distance verbally and wait to see what he or she does. If they make a move toward you, you can cap them. If they run away, then little is lost. You do not ever want to shoot someone in the back. Make the perp make an aggressive move toward you. All will be well after that (as long as you can hit your target).

  8. I have more of a conflict with employing “deadly force” in some attempt at preventing theft. ‘Things,’ including vehicles are replaceable/retrievable, once you ventilate some ‘human,’ in a ‘deadly’ fashion, they are not! Of course, any use of force by the thief changes that paradigm. I carry 24/7, and by God’s grace have never encountered a situation that required I access that ‘deadly’ piece. It is there, primarily and ONLY, to defend my life or that of another against some “life threatening” event. Many advise, even in an ‘active shooter’ situation, that you first look to “escape,” getting yourself and yours to safety, only engaging as a LAST resort to save your life or anther’s when escape is not available! In this ‘theft of a vehicle,’ or other items, the possible best outcome would be some warning given, from cover, the perp bailing, or, you simply being the BEST witness to the event, paying close attention to any details you might pass on to the “authorities!”

    1. Firewagon,

      You along with a few others here seem to insist as a general rule that property theft alone does not justify deadly force. But lawfully it does, can, and has. I’ve already previously stated in another post that laws exist which protect a citizen’s right to the use of deadly force over property for a good reason.

      The purpose behind such legal wisdom stems from centuries of experience establishing that theft of certain property has in-fact led to the loss of victim’s lives or taken away their entire livelihoods; even if it is not realized immediately.

      And since the law cannot possibly be written to foresee every possible theft scenario and its result, it is instead written to cover property theft in general which makes deadly force permissible. It is just a fact.

      So while the theft of a vehicle may not be considered immediately life threatening to you, it would be to the mother with three children being carjacked at a desolate roadside stop in the middle of a desert. Such isolated abandon could easily lead to that family’s death.

      Or maybe an heirloom ring taken by a fleeing burglar also may not be worth a life to you, but it certainly would be to the man needing such an heirloom as collateral to pay for the cancer treatment of his little girl.

      Neither of these cases are immediately life threatening, but could still ultimately result in a death later on. The statutes do not expect law abiding citizens to wait out such deadly fates, and thus are justified in taking action immediately, even if it is deadly action.

      Simply stated, the law created by decades of wisdom knows best when it tells us we cannot make a blanket rule forbidding all deadly force over property. Because sometimes protecting the property or livelihood it represents is worth the life of the scumbag degenerate who is stealing it.

      One last thing, I certainly could never live with myself knowing I was the only one with a gun to put down an “active shooter”, and instead fled leaving everyone else to be massacred. But that’s just me.

  9. In California, private citizens are pretty much screwed unless…
    1) You witness the actual act
    2) You can see visible damage to your vehicle proving point of illegal entrance
    3) Suspect has burglary tools in his possession
    4) After you give him clear verbal commands to stop, he comes at you in an aggressive manner and with a clear weapon in his hand
    5) You were (and this is the BIG ONE) “In Fear for Your Life or the Life of Others”
    So… here is what a Peace Officer told me… “Grab an “Old Screwdriver and a Baseball Bat” Sneak up behind him, holler as lowed as you can: Hey Stop, put that weapon down!” (make sure all the neighbors can hear this warning!) then as soon as he turns and faces you, swing for his head like you were hitting a home run! Hit him again if necessary! (reason- he actually have a weapon!) Place the screwdriver in his hand (this is now the “Weapon”) Have neighbors call Police while you repeat over and over in your mind; “I was in fear for my Life, I was in fear for my Life, I was in fear for my Life till you and the responding law enforcement believe it!
    Key note, “Dead Men can NOT DISPUTE YOUR STORY!

  10. One MUST ALWAYS, REPEAT MUST ALWAYS USE MININUM FORCE. That means using the least amount of Force that is necessary to get the job done and stop the threat……Voice commands for example…releasing a K-9, using a taser, or pepper spray/mace,.One can escalate Force as needed to maintain or take Control of the Bad Guy(s) or potential Bad Guy(s). IF the situation means using Deadly Force as the only option to stop the Bad Guy(s), then so be it. I have Military USAF Security and other Security experience. I have signed more Use of Deadly Force Documents than I ever recall. When I was in SAC I/We was/were authorized to Use Deadly Force if one “Broke Red” (among other times). They would get “Jacked Up”. IF they failed to respond to commands of being Jacked Up then I/we immediately escalated Force until they responded to commands, or getting taken down by Force or it would end in a justifiable shooting…..but that has nothing to do with Civilian Laws/regulations….I am just pointing it out WHY people need to familiarize themselves with Use of Force/Deadly/Lethal Force.

    Those documents explain in no uncertain terms WHEN one can use Deadly/Lethal Force. One of those items is worded something like this or similar to this. One is Justified/Authorized Use of Deadly Force in protection of Priority Resources and Material, Property INHERENTLY DANGEROUS TO OTHERS. I am paraphrasing and simplifying it. EXCEPT for the part of Material/Property INHERENTLY DANGEROUS OTHERS…….. This could be large amount of dangerous /toxic chemicals,or firearms, or ammunition, etc.

    EXAMPLE, there is a firearm in the vehicle…that is property inherently dangerous to others……As for a legitimate shoot…..I would HIGHLY RECCOMMEND to get a copy and familiarize yourself with YOUR STATE/Community laws on USE OF DEADLY/LETHAL FORCE.. The few minutes it takes to read the document can make the difference of you going to Prison or being ruled a justified shooting.

    IF you ever have to use a firearm in Deadly Force…ALWAYS aim for Center Mass. It gives one the largest area to hit and to stop the Threat/ Bad Guy/s.Warning Shot are not always legal….check the policy in YOUR state community.

    People CAN use Deadly Force to protect large amounts of cash goes without saying. Look at banks and armored cars. Often times in cities Jewelers and others dealing in large amounts of cash, gems, precious metals, etc. can easily get a CCW permit before the normal every day person.

    FYI….someone mentioned LEOs always using more than Minimal Force are Mistaken…..LEOs MUST always follow USE of Force Policy or else they can be charged with Excessive Use of Force and a potential Law suit for them and their department.

    1. In my opinion, Warning shots are probably NOT legal because, if the confrontation has escalated to the point that you HAVE to draw your weapon, you have reached the point where you are, in fact, “in fear for your life”, and MUST protect yourself. Otherwise, your weapon would/should have stayed in your holster.

    2. Hmmmm……let’s see. I can strike with my fist with a measured 48 lbs of force. My Ruger .45 auto’s trigger breaks at 4.4 lbs. of force. “…MUST ALWAYS USE MINIMUM FORCE”, eh? Guess that settles that!

  11. Jim in Conroe,

    Good catch. It is a typo. The article appears to be a transcript of the video which has the words “day or night” actually starting the next sentence. It should read:

    “… as determined by potentially a judge or a jury, you can have the right in Texas to use deadly force against that person.

    Day or night you always have the right to use force against the person who’s committing the burglary of a motor vehicle.”

  12. I am a little confused by this paragraph, “The person who’s breaking into your vehicle is doing so presumably to commit a theft of what’s inside, so if you witness this activity in the night time, so long as you’re acting reasonably, as determined by potentially a judge or a jury, you can have the right in Texas to use deadly force against that person day or night.”

    It would seem that the phrase, “. . . in the night time . . .” is contrary to the concluding statement that encompasses “day or night.”

  13. Can anyone answer tis question for Pennsylvania? I have always read that unless you are personally in danger, you call the police and to not assume the position of the attacker… please give thoughts or facts!

  14. Some years ago, caught someone trying to break into my car. Was in a public parking lot, broad day light. He was trying to force a window. All casual, walked up to him and asked if he’d locked his keys in his car. Of course he said , yes. I offered to help. It was my (at the time) 1951 Plymouth, which had the ‘wing windows’. I always left the driver’s side unlocked. Reached inside, unlocked the door, pulled out my .38 revolver, clubbed him between the eyes. got into my car and drove off, him laying unconscious on the ground. This was West Virginia. By state law, at the time, I could have killed him, but then there would have been all that tedious paper work to contend with. I do hope that he got a headache every time he thought about breaking into someone else’s car.

  15. Good information. Question: Does the situation change re: deadly force, if there is a weapon in the car?

  16. Cops often use force above and beyond what you describe here as perhaps legally dangerous for the rest of us. Doesn’t that mean cops are “above the law” and the rest of us are mere “mundanes?”

    1. Yes, there are separate standards for use of force that apply to police versus the population at large. The short version of “why” is that police are expected to put themselves in harms way in situations that the population at large is not.

      I imagine you’d be rather disappointed (and angry) if the police arrived in response to a burglary/robbery in progress and then simply stood by and watched.

      The full reality is more nuanced, of course, but there are limits to how much detail can be properly discussed in the comments section of a blog.

  17. Of course, being attorneys, they ignore the Texas Penal Code which in Chapter 9 basically states that you have the right to use deadly force to protect yourself, your property, someone else, AND their property.

    You see, you can’t argue Code but you CAN argue Case Law (which isn’t about law but about which attorney got to win that time).

    IF you really wan’t to know the legal position of an attorney in Texas, check out Texas Constitution Article 1 Section 26.

    1. Regardless of what the law says on paper, the reality of what it means is eventually decided in the courtroom.

      You might be willing to be the test case, but I imagine most gun owners with family and a livelihood to worry about would prefer otherwise.

  18. Throughout 21+ years in police and military work, I have received a LOT of training Dept of Justice, academies, and far more. Outside of protecting military weapons systems, and the lives of both military and civilians, my training came down to ‘deadly force is not authorized simply to protect possessions. Possessions; money, televisions, vehicles, etc, are replaceable. Lives are not replaceable. Therefore, you have the right to use deadly force to protect lives. PERIOD Of course, you are totally within your rights to be prepared to defend lives, but not to act unless there is an overt act threatening a life.

    One example is a case where a person may be so drunk that they do something foolish like stumble into the home of another person with no intent to do harm. You may be frighten to find them there, but it isn’t a good reason to take their life; the most precious thing any of us have. What if it were a child?

    You might be cleared in the end, but people with a conscience will have to live with their actions. I still deal with things I had to do on the job 30 years ago and longer. I regret I had to do them, but I can justify what I did, especially in combat.

    1. This is generally true, but in Texas and at least one other state you can use deadly force to stop someone who is stealing your property. If you walk in on an intruder who is exiting your back door carrying your big screen TV, you can shoot him in the back.

      None of this castle doctrine logic, no warning shots, no backing up until you can’t back up anymore and you have to be in fear of your life, you can shoot them.

      Is my personal property a good enough reason to take someone’s life? I guess that’s going to depend on the situation, but I sure as hell am not going to just stand there (in Texas anyway) and watch them saunter off with the items they stole after breaking into my home.

      Sorry, but I don’t have a problem with that, and think that Texas has it about right.

    2. DaveW,

      A couple of comments here, including yours, improperly speaks to this topic from the perspective of restraint that is only imposed upon government employees when using deadly force, not civilians.

      Currently in my 35th year in federal law enforcement and a military reservist which spans almost the same period, I can speak intelligibly to this topic. As professional responders, we are defending another’s property and not our own. Most often we arrive after the fact and thus are not faced with the same dangers as the first party victims.

      Unlike law enforcement or military, the law cannot, and does not, expect these victims to anticipate the intent of every perpetrator. And thus the same rules cannot possibly be reasonably applied to civilians.

      Simply put, when it comes to the use of force, public laws and the UCMJ sees distinct differences between private citizens versus public servants. I can best illustrate the reason behind such differences by referring to the old saying – “Monday morning quarterback.” One dictionary definition defines it as follows:

      “a person who criticizes the actions or decisions of others after the fact, using hindsight to assess situations and specify alternative solutions.”

      While the above definition alone should overwhelmingly serve to make my point, I’ll go a step further to say – an increasing number of bleeding hearts these days can’t understand that a single mom protecting her child, or an elderly widow with disabilities cannot possibly be expected to risk their life just to wait out the possibility that the perpetrator might have only been a drunkard that mistakenly stumbled into their home.

      Instead, there is great wisdom embedded into the many laws which defends a citizen’s right to the use of deadly force; even over property. Primarily because no one can expect a citizen to know within seconds the intent or capability of the perpetrator. Likewise, even the least violent of perpetrators have taken aggressive action for fear of being caught.

      While such situations are unfortunate, these laws will always extend the benefit of doubt to the law abiding citizen, over that of even the mildest of unruly behaviors of a perpetrator who caused the problem to begin with – like your drunkard.

      There is a reason that amongst other facts, a victim otherwise need only to have “felt” their life was in danger to establish justification in such cases.

      Furthermore, many bleeding hearts never take the time to educate themselves on the history behind such laws. One example is that a vehicle replaced the horse. Were you to steal a horse back before the car existed, you could be shot dead given a horse meant life or death to the stranded victim.

      The same standard applies today because stealing a vehicle out in a desolate place, such as a desert, could also mean life or death for a victim. Even in the city carjackings have led to the deaths of children that were still in the backseats.

      For many people the theft of their vehicle deprives them of their livelihood. And while not as protected by the same rights as a home for the purpose of lawful searches, a vehicle serves temporarily as a home for many people while traveling. So for example say a car containing an elderly man’s heart medication was stolen on a day trip. Such a theft is life or death and deadly force would be lawfully to prevent such a burglary or theft.

      The laws cannot be written to accommodate every possible variable, and thus must focus concern on the best interest of the public at large, rather than the occasional drunkard – no matter how unfortunate it may seem to the bleeding hearts.

    3. As you state, ‘every’ situation has to be evaluated by anyone considering using ‘deadly force.’ Several of your scenarios are examples of reasons to escalate to the use of deadly force. Often, time becomes the qualifying factor, as in having little to no time to “evaluate” the situation – tragedy can be the result, examples of actual events run from the home owner blasting their dog into eternity to the greater tragedy of killing a member of their family, or neighbor mistaking their home for his! The, hated phrase, bottom line in most states, probably even Texas, is: you better be able to articulate to some judge and/or possibly a jury as to why you found it necessary to employ deadly force. Many people lack the mental/physical ability to be armed, and most choose not to do so, thankfully. Example of at least two that thought otherwise: 1) The woman thinking (as she declared) to shoot the tires out on a car of fleeing “shop lifters” in a Walmart parking lot. 2) The police woman still pointing her ‘Glock’ handgun at the perp on the ground, already controlled by two of her ‘partners,’ continuing to have her “trigger actuator” on the trigger and fogging off an “accidental discharge,” only by God’s intervention NOT hitting anything except the concrete in front and to the side of the perp and his handcuffers! To each his own; however, being ‘responsibly’ armed requires far more thought than too many Roy Rogers types out there comprehend. That ‘responsibility,’ at times, requires that you appear the coward, by NOT inserting that “deadly force” into some non-life threatening situation.

  19. “Sorry your Honor, but he had a burglary tool called a screw driver, and he started to come towards me, so I just HAD to fill em full of LEAD to stop the threat”.
    Now, if you live in the commie state of Jersey( at least it used to be, you had to run out your back door. And don’t ever use a firearm against someone pulling a knife out. That’s what they call EXCESSIVE FORCE. It may have changed in the twenty-five years since I was “reborn” a Southern in Tennessee, though.

    1. Dave W. – From your response, sounds like your Patrol Guide is the same as mine. You write a good explanation CCW permit holders can educate themselves. Bottom line: Property can be replaced, human lives cannot.

  20. As it was explained to my TEXAS DPS INSTRUCTORS class a few years back, the delineation needs to be made between “theft”, which is someone stealing from a car that is not locked and requires no breaking or jimmying to enter and take the belongings. What changes the case to a good shoot, is the vehicle being locked. At that point, it becomes breaking and entering, aka felony burglary. Ever wonder why every parking lot in the state has the sign “LOCK YOUR VEHICLE, TAKE THE KEYS?” If the car is locked, it’s a felony, if it is not locked, it’s a ticket.
    The same goes for theft of property at your home. If it’s outside the home but unsecured, that is theft, and is NOT a good shoot if it is during the daylight hours. Nighttime makes simple theft a whole new ballgame. Theft in the night is a good shoot, secured or unsecured is irrelevant.

  21. Would “use of force” also include non-lethal use of a firearm, e.g., shooting burglar in the leg?

    1. If you can justify shooting someone in his leg, or even his little toe, you can justify shooting them center mass or in his head.

    2. If you draw your weapon, you have made the decision that deadly force may be required. Unless the act of brandishing the firearm dissuades the aggressor from his actions, then when you decide to fire you are doing so because you have no decided that deadly force is required. Shooting to wound, as inadvisable as that may be from the “hitting your target” point of view, would lead me to conclude that you really didn’t think deadly force was required in the first place. Hence, the shooting would not be justified in this respect.

    3. From a legal standpoint, any use of a firearm is always lethal force.

      Frequently, even brandishing also qualifies.

  22. Respectfully, as a civilian with a CCW, property burglary is not justifiable course for use of deadly force. If a police officer cannot, per policy, discharge a weapon for simple GTA, why can a CCW permit holder do so unless their life is in jeopardy. The patrol guide offers excellent guidelines for officers and civilian alike when it comes to the use of deadly force.

    1. “…property burglary is not justifiable course for use of deadly force.”

      It is in Texas.

    2. Ken R,

      Of course you are speaking as a matter of opinion. I can respect that you have an opinion, but can’t agree with it given it conflicts with most laws. As well, bringing police policy into this as a comparative for justifying your opinion is misplaced.

      Such policy inhibits officers from using deadly force because they are arriving as a third party only. Most laws originated with the intent of protecting the actual property owners from unreasonable prosecutions and not third parties, such as officers.

      If you research the bulk of these state laws you will discover many even protect third parties while defending another’s property which would include officers. So that just leaves a department’s policy which may get an officer fired, but not prosecuted.

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