Longform

Should Colorado's Make My Day law be expanded?

The knock on the door came at ten minutes before ten on a Monday night in January, just as Al Michaud was thinking about going to bed. He started to get out of his chair to see who was there.

His visitors were way ahead of him. Three large young men he'd never seen before burst through the unlocked door into his living room. "I'll take care of him — you guys go that way," one of them said, gesturing toward the bedroom.

They must have had Michaud pegged as easy prey. He was a short, heavyset guy in his fifties, with bad legs and a bad back, living in a crime-infested neighborhood on the east side of Colorado Springs. And growing weed right there in his pad; around the apartment complex, it was common knowledge that Michaud was a medical marijuana caregiver and was cultivating several plants.

But the men had miscalculated. They didn't know that Michaud was never alone, not since two burglaries the previous summer. He had two constant companions.

Mr. Smith and Mr. Wesson.

Born in Maine and raised in New Hampshire, Michaud had grown up around firearms. An avid hunter, he'd once had occasion to use a deer rifle in a complicated, deadly altercation with a fellow member of the Granite State Riders motorcycle club. Guns and home protection had become even more important to him since he began managing the squat, barracks-like apartments in Colorado Springs in exchange for free rent.

The place wasn't safe. Last August, someone had come in through his window while he was out and made off with a handgun and a laptop computer. Michaud had a pretty good idea who the culprit was; he even showed the police the trampled trail from his window to another tenant's apartment, but they didn't seem too interested. Two days later, Michaud let his neighbors know he was going fishing the next day and would be gone most of the day.

He waited quietly in his apartment until late the next morning, when he heard someone remove the fan from his window, step onto his bed and then head for the living room. "That's when I stopped him and busted him in the face with a fifty-caliber muzzle-loader," Michaud says. "He was a big kid, over 200 pounds. Fourteen, fifteen years old. They put him in a juvenile jail. He was out a couple days later on home arrest or something."

Tenants were always coming to Michaud with complaints, so he often didn't bother to lock his door. "If they feel bad enough to come in here, shit, welcome in," he says. He figured that catching a burglar red-handed would put the community on notice that he wasn't anybody's pigeon.

But no one had given these three home invaders the message. The first one headed right toward him. "I had no idea what they were going to do," Michaud says.

He had no time to think about the situation. What he had was a Smith & Wesson .357 Magnum, resting on the chair cushion. He picked it up and shot the first man in the chest. He hit the second one in the leg. Then the third one was on him, fighting for the gun.

Michaud managed to shove the man away. The three invaders fled as neighbors, roused by the commotion, began calling 911. When police arrived, they found two wounded suspects lying in the street a block away. A third soon turned himself in. Police also arrested a woman they believed to be the getaway driver. All four face charges of robbery and conspiracy; according to an arrest affidavit, they had planned to take Michaud's marijuana and any money they could find.

It didn't take long for authorities to determine that there would be no charges for Michaud. Colorado's home-protection statute — better known as the "Make My Day" law, a reference to Clint Eastwood's avenging cop, Dirty Harry — allows anyone to use deadly force in his or her home when confronted with an uninvited intruder and a reasonable belief that said intruder "is committing or intends to commit a crime" against person or property. Under such circumstances, the home defender is immune from criminal prosecution or civil liability.

It's not clear if the men who charged into Michaud's apartment that night were armed; Michaud doesn't recall seeing any weapon other than his own, and he had no opportunity to frisk anyone. But that doesn't matter for the purposes of Make My Day. If the occupant reasonably believes that the intruder might use physical force, no matter how slight, then a response involving virtually any degree of physical force, right up to decapitation and immolation, is considered justified.

Like dozens of similar incidents across the state since the law was passed in 1985, Michaud's defense of his domicile will go into the books as another righteous shoot. Not all of the cases involve shootings, of course; in some, invaders have been repelled with knives, fists or handy household blunt objects. But more than any other measure, the Make My Day law has helped to shape Colorado's favorable approach to defensive gun use in the home, even as state lawmakers have sought to impose a battery of other restrictions on gun capacity and purchases in the wake of last summer's Aurora theater shootings.

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast