The Florida Movie Theater Shooting

Written by Greg Ellifritz

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Written by Greg Ellifritz

 

Curtis Reeves, Jr.

By now you have all likely seen the news reports detailing the confrontation between a retired police Captain and a person using his cell phone in a Florida movie theater.  The confrontation escalated and the retired cop shot the man after he was attacked.  Interestingly, the entire incident was recorded via infrared video in the theater.  If you want more background on the incident, check out the article HERE.  Otherwise, watch the short video below:

 

 

So, what do you think?  Was the shooting justified?

 

 

In order to be justified, the shooter would need a reasonable belief that he was likely to be seriously hurt or killed.  That reasonable belief is evaluated by using the concepts of Ability, Opportunity, Jeopardy, and Preclusion.  Let’s go through them all and see what we have…

 

 

Ability- Did the attacker have the ability to seriously injure or kill the shooter?  I believe he did.  The man was much larger and younger than the retired police detective.  He was also reportedly very angry and volatile.

 

 

Opportunity- Was the attacker at a range that he could use his bodily weapons to cause serious physical harm?  The answer to this one is “yes” as well.

 

 

Jeopardy- Was the shooter here in any true danger of being seriously injured or killed?  That’s where we have a problem.  The shooter testified that he thought he was struck and was afraid that the attacker would “beat the shit” out of him.  Video analysis seems to show that the strike was actually the angry man throwing his cell phone at the shooter.

 

 

Grabbing a bag of popcorn and/or throwing a cell phone would not lead most people to believe that they would likely suffer serious injury or death.  In fact, a single punch probably wouldn’t be enough to meet the standards in most situations.  Thus, a reasonable person would not fear that he was in true jeopardy here.  Without the element of jeopardy, the shooting would be ruled unjustifiable.

 

 

Remember, jeopardy is judged from the perspective of the “reasonable man.”  Being in jeopardy is something that is LIKELY to happen, not something that could POSSIBLY happen.  There’s a big difference.  It’s theoretically possible that I get attacked by flying monkeys when I walk out of my door tomorrow, but it isn’t likely.  You need to decide if a reasonable person would consider that you were LIKELY to be in serious danger before you can prove the jeopardy component.

 

 

One possible defense that would muddy the waters a bit and would help the defendant is that if the shooter testified that in his extensive police experience, he saw numerous crimes committed by attackers who first threw something at the defender as a distraction to facilitate the attack.  If the shooter here believed that throwing the cell phone and popcorn was being used by the attacker to set up a physical attack, he may be able to prove the element of jeopardy.  This is, in fact, a relatively common street attack.

 

 

Preclusion- This is the concept of “What else could the shooter have done to avoid the confrontation?”  For more information about this idea, see my article HERE.

 

 

Preclusion is a real problem in this case.  A reasonable person would have simply moved, called the police, or left the theater if he was feeling threatened.  The shooter here could have done all of those things, yet chose to shoot instead.  The jury is likely to have a real problem with understanding why he stayed around and shot the attacker rather than just leaving.

 

 

The shooter’s own admission of “If I had it to do over again, I would have moved.” will likely be devastating to his case.

 

 

As an armed citizen, how do you avoid incidents like these?

 

 

The shooter here appears to me to have been enraged and letting his emotions overrule his rational thoughts.  Staying calm in stressful situations is a learned skill and everyone who carries a gun for protection should have it.  Letting the ego get in your way will likely lead to poor outcomes.

 

 

Mental pre-planning may help too.  If you had previously visualized such an event and planned the best response (leaving), it would be much easier to implement the planned response than to develop a solution on the fly, especially when under stress.

 

 

One final thing to think about is the development of empty hand physical skills or the use of a less lethal weapon.  “When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.”  When you only have a gun and no other weapons or empty hand skills to back it up, every problem will have a shooting solution.  That’s far from optimal.

 

 

The shooter here was assaulted.  The problem is that the assault probably would not have been considered to be a lethal force attack.  If the older man had defended himself physically or used pepper spray against the younger, stronger man, his actions would have probably been justified. It’s important for shooters to have other options.  If you carry a gun, you should also be trained in empty hand skills and have an alternate, less lethal weapon available for attacks like this.

 

 

I think the shooter here made a mistake.  He’s likely to go to prison for that mistake.  It’s up to you to make sure you don’t follow in his footsteps.

 

 

 

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9 Comments For This Post I'd Love to Hear Yours!

  1. Ron says:

    Your brain (in my opinion) is the most valuable thing you can use in situations such as this one. A “smart person” LOOKING TO AVOID any troubles would have simply moved away in the beginning.

    The fact that the defendant got up, left and came back shows he had “time to brew”. Although this would be an assumption on my part. Most normal humans (at least us Alpha males) possess the ability to build up steam during such times. Personally,,,, that is the point where red flags begin to wave and I realize it’s time to go.

    One thing I noticed is that it “appears” that the retired LEO must have had his hand on that gun in his pocket,,,, his response time (considering pocket carry) was fast. If I was the prosecution I would capitalize upon that fact which is fairly clear in the video footage.

    Even after the point of the popcorn being thrown, were there still options available to escape & evade? I say yes there were, as I didn’t see the attacker have any form of physical control over the defendant. I point this out because my personal approach is to escape & evade whenever, wherever possible,,,, even DURING a fight.

    The off duty LEO testimony near the end of the video sorta ices the cake.

    There will forever remain a HUGE difference between “Can I” & “Should I”. Butter stains from popcorn on your favorite shirt just don’t do it for me. Just my take.

  2. Frank says:

    While he was an LEO he should have had some training in deescalating situations with ill temperred suspects. Why didn’y he pull that skill out of his tool box?
    His ego lead him back to the same seat after the initial retreat. The victum could have been standing and facing the shooter when he threw his popcorn and cel phone. If the shooter tried to get up and leave now he would have easily been in striking distance of a bully.
    The old man could also have called out to the other patrons for help if he was in fear and drawn attention to the attack. The off duty deputy could have helped defuse or the fact that the whole theatre was watching an old man getting attacked may be enough of a deterent for the bully not to strike him. That would also present an opportunity to retreat.
    Why didn’t the victums wife tell him to calm down and try to stop the situation from escalating or at least tell him to turn his phone off?
    The officers wife could have requested they move.
    Plenty of other options especially for someone with his level of training.

  3. Claude says:

    I tell all my classes:

    “If you carry a gun, carry pepper spray. Lacking an intermediate force option implies that all you are prepared to do to protect yourself is kill someone. That’s not a statement I am willing to make, nor would most people if they thought about for a few seconds.”

    Unfortunately, this gentleman had apparently never thought about that.

    • Trevor Shepherd says:

      If you pepper spray me, you will be charged with a crime. At best, it is Harassment, a summary offense in PA, but I’d push for you to be charged with Simple Assault, an M2 (or M3 if you and I mutually decided to fight about something). If you want that on your record forever, go ahead. I advise that people do not engage in escalation of confrontations with other people. Unlike police officers who may be able to use actual physical contact, intermediate force tools, or create fear in the citizen that such things may be employed, a civilian can not do these things to other people. A civilian can use deadly force when necessary to protect the civilian;s life, as has been described in detail elsewhere and commonly referred to as self-defense in life threatening situations. But short of one’s life being in actual jeopardy (or, in the few associated situations such as protecting the life of another, etc), civilians have no legal authority to touch, spray, menace, harass, etc other civilians, no matter how much that other civilian has annoyed you. If a person hits you in the face, and you hit back, it is a mutual fight. In the absence of serious injury to either party and the absence of demonstrable intent to cause serious injury, you both have an M3 Simple assault charge even if the other guy hit you first.

      Then, there are the civil litigation issues. If you spray me with pepper spray, get out your check book because I am going to sue you in civil court.

      • Greg Ellifritz says:

        Trevor,

        Your statement is erroneous. Courts all across the USA have recognized two different classes of force for decades. Lethal force is well understood. But that’s not what we are discussing. Pepper spray or any other force option that isn’t likely to cause death or serious injury is classified as merely “force” or “physical force”. There is no distinction between police use of force and a citizen using force in the face of an attack. The rules are the same. Police have the additional right to use physical force to effect a lawful arrest, but that doesn’t come into play in this situation.

        Similar standards of use hold true between the two force classifications. If you reasonably believe that you are likely to be seriously injured or killed, you may respond with lethal force. Likewise, if you reasonably believe that you will be hurt in a manner other than serious injury or death, you may protect yourself using physical force.

        If you are assaulted and defend yourself, that is NOT mutual combat. You have the right to use physical force to protect yourself from an assault. The shooter here was assaulted. One could reasonably assume that physical injury is likely when a large man throws a cell phone at you, responding by using pepper spray to avoid going hands on or to facilitate an escape is a very reasonable option and would not likely be prosecuted.

        Pepper spray is considered force by the courts, but is at the extreme lower level of the force spectrum because of the lack of long term serious injuries associated with it. It is considered less force than striking someone, kicking them, or taking them to the ground.

        Besides the self defense aspect, in most states you are allowed to use physical force (but not deadly force) to defend property. The theft of the man’s popcorn, no matter how trivial, would likely also provide justification for the use of physical force in a defensive manner.

        Yes, if you randomly pepper spray someone without a reasonable belief that you would likely experience physical harm you are comitting a crime. In my state it would be simple assault, a first degree misdemeanor. But using pepper spray to defend yourself is not a crime so long as you have a reasonable belief that you are likely to suffer physical harm.

        And yes, you could sue a person who sprays you. But suing someone and winning said lawsuit are two different things.

  4. ferndale says:

    more importantly, the shooter initiated the situation by picking a fight with the victim. he started an argument about something that wasn’t a big deal. so what if the guy was using his phone before the lights had dimmed? the ex-cop got himself tripped up by his lifetime as an authority figure. when he returned from seeking assistance from management, he started arguing again. this is nto the behavior of a legitimate potential victim. it’s the behavior of an asshole hellbent on proving to himself that he “still had it.”

    • JMD says:

      That’s what I take away from this. The man with the cell phone posed no threat to the retired cop. The cop escalated the situation when he should have known to de-escalate. He shot when he should have walked away.

      The lesson I take from this incident is to keep your hand off your gun until your life truly is in jeopardy, and to do everything it takes to keep things from reaching that point to begin with.

  5. thebronze says:

    This guy is (rightfully) going to prison. He was apparently a highly trained and experienced senior LE official prior to his retirement.

    He was also known as a “hot-head” by those that knew him (according to what I’ve read).

    His knowledge, experience and training holds him to a higher standard than a “mere” civilian CCW carrier should be. Even based on the civilian standard, this was a bad shoot.

    He let his anger and emotions get the best of him and he’s going to have to face the consequences for doing so.

  6. Eric Roessler says:

    Here in my (now) home state of Florida, we have the Movie Theater Shooter and the Loud Music Shooter (who dumped nine rounds into an SUV full of teenagers who wouldn’t turn their music down at a gas station, and claimed one of them had a gun, never found). Both are, in my opinion, volatile, violent menaces who richly deserve the jailtime they’re going to get, not only for their crimes, but for attempting to use the self-defense laws enacted to protect righteous citizens. But there’s another takeaway that I believe is being overlooked: be civil.

    Growing up, I was admonished by my parents and later by police trainers and instructors to watch how I comport myself, lest I find myself the target of some maladjusted individual’s rage. “Don’t flip people off on the road, some crazy person might shoot you!” “Watch what you say to drunks at bars, they might have friends and you’ll end up getting beaten down.”

    I don’t condone the actions of these attackers. I don’t believe the victims got “what they deserved.” But both victims could have circumvented the situations if they’d chosen to be civil. It’s common sense.

    If you’re not supposed to text in a movie theater and someone calls you on it, stop texting. If it’s an important text (an oxymoron in my opinion, but whatever), step out into the entrance where it won’t bother anyone. If someone tells you to lower your music at a gas station, lower it, with apologies.

    I’m reminded of Rory Miller’s description of the story you tell yourself about who you are, and how people are willing to fight and die for that fiction. “I don’t take shit from anyone.” The cautionary moral of these stories for me isn’t just about when to shoot or not shoot, it’s also when to shoot off your mouth or shut up.

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