One Maryland firefighter was shot and killed and another one seriously injured after knocking on the resident’s door responding to a check for the person’s welfare. No charges are filed at this time. And social media is weighing in on both sides of the argument –to file charges and those wondering why firefighters responded in the first instance and attempted to bust in the door. And as a former Maryland prosecutor, I wonder why no charges were filed by Prince George’s County State’s Attorney Angela Alsobrooks. And charges might still be filed at a later time.
On Friday, April 15, Prince Georges County firefighters responded to a home for a well person check, following a call by the brother of the resident-to check on his state of health. Firefighters respond as first responders in these types of cases which may need paramedic/medical assistance. Upon arriving at the home, presumably with the customary siren sound on and flashing lights on upon arrival, the firefighters announced themselves and received no response from knocking on the door. They were met with no response except gun shots which killed firefighter John Ulmschneider and seriously injured the second firefighter on the scene. The family member who made the call for welfare check was also injured.
As with all cases, everything is not known in the media. The mental state of the resident is not known or what additional facts revealed in the investigation only known to investigators and prosecutors. From the information as revealed, it is questionable as to why some charges were not filed—at a minimum for involuntary manslaughter. Involuntary manslaughter in Maryland means an unintentional/ accidental killing occurred –due to criminally reckless or criminally negligent behavior.
In Maryland a homeowner or resident has a right to protect himself inside his or her home in order to defend against deadly harm. Yet, the defense of the castle doctrine or a modified castle doctrine is not an absolute defense. In a very similar case occurring in a Detroit, Michigan suburb, the result was the opposite. Homeowner, Theodore Wafer, initially told police that he shot nineteen year old Renisha McBride as she stood on his porch banging on the door, seeking help following a car accident. Wafer had testified that he feared for his life as a group of thugs might be breaking into his home, in his changing suburban neighborhood.
Wafer, like the person who shot the Maryland firefighters, shot through a closed door upon hearing banging. Wafer is currently serving a sentence of 17 to 32 years after being found guilty on August 7, 2014 of second degree murder, manslaughter and discharging a firearm in the commission of a felony. The facts between the case of Renisha McBride and the Maryland firefighter are similar.
The differences between the two cases lie in the fact that first responders arrived to the home. In many jurisdictions, where the safety of a person is concerned, firefighters who are also trained as paramedics arrive first on the scene. And they do not usually arrive quietly. I have known fire trucks to arrive with siren and lights on, upon arrival at a location when a call is made for an ambulance. According to the Prince George’s Firefighters’ Association, the firefighters announced themselves, checked for windows and banged on the door -getting no response. Then they proceeded to attempt entry into the home. All of this is acceptable protocol. In the act of trying to assist someone, one firefighter was shot and killed; another one is in serious condition.
Police do not generally in many jurisdictions proceed to homes for check of a resident’s well-being. And firefighters do not need a warrant to attempt entry based on the concerned facts received from the family member-who was also present with the firefighters. Many persons dispute whether firefighters should attempt to bust in the door in these situations. No warrant is needed. This is not the case where sheriffs or police arrive to serve a warrant. Firefighters were present solely for assistance of possible medical attention.
I have on occasion felt heath concerns for a close family member while living out of town. And if I was not able to ascertain their whereabouts or have someone to check, I would not have hesitated to make a call to authorities to check on their welfare–even knowing that their door might be broken in. It is a means to save people’s lives.
State’s Attorney Angela Alsobrooks needs to further review the facts. If the intentions are not to file charges, then she should respond to the public’s cry for concerns—on both sides of the argument. It is the right thing to do.
UPDATE: DC’s WUSA -9 reports the homeowner felt his home was being invaded.
Washington, DC based Debbie Hines is a trial lawyer, legal analyst and former Baltimore prosecutor. She is frequently seen on air on Al Jazeera, BET, CBS, CCTV, Fox 5 DC, PBS, NPR, MSNBC and TV One among others. Her Op Ed’s have appeared in the Washington Post, Baltimore Sun and Baltimore Afro American.