A Florida Movie Theater and Lethal Self-Defense

  • Date:
  • March 02, 2022

On February 25, 2022, a Florida jury acquitted the former police officer who shot and a killed the man he argued with in a movie theater in 2014. Curtis Reeves wasn’t just any retired police officer, but a former SWAT commander. His defense counsel even argued that his past informed his perceptions of the threat in that moment: Reeves, his attorney said, was a “decorated law enforcement officer who had countless hours of training in the use of force, in the assessment of danger, and the risks that take place when we are faced with a dangerous encounter.” A jury evidently credited some version of that argument.

In the movie theater eight years ago, the altercation started when Reeves chided Chad Oulson for texting during the previews before the movie started and told him to stop. Oulson had been texting the couple’s babysitter. The two argued, and Oulson threw a bag of popcorn at Reeves. In response, Reeves pulled out his handgun and shot Oulson. Reeves testified that he feared for his life. As he said:

[Oulson] was yelling a lot of profanities . . . he was trying to come over the seat – either that or get to me. I’ve never been in that kind of position before. When he stood up, I’m sitting down in a completely defenseless position. I’m looking up at this guy, and he is looking like a monster. He exhibited explosive behavior, both verbally and physically. I had seen his wife try to control him.

Florida’s Stand Your Ground law allows a person to use deadly force without retreating whenever they are in a place they have a right to be and reasonably believe that force is necessary to avoid death or great bodily harm. It also entitles anyone claiming such a defense to a pre-trial immunity hearing. In this case, a judge in 2017 rejected the immunity argument after the pre-trial hearing, ruling that deadly force was not necessary. But such a ruling only meant the case continued to trial, where the defendant was free to assert self-defense to the jury.

Robust self-defense laws and the situations they create can lead to avoidable loss of life. In a 2020 article (which he presented at the first Firearms Law Works-in-Progress Workshop and blogged about after), Cody Jacobs used the Reeves case to argue for a rule that would hold private property owners civilly liable for failing to keep guns off their property. As he argued, “If the movie theater had an explicit, clearly posted policy prohibiting guns, it is likely that Mr. Reeves, a former law enforcement officer with no criminal record, never would have brought a gun to the movie that day in the first place, and Mr. Oulson would still be alive.” At our upcoming conference later this month on Privatizing the Gun Debate, we’ll discuss proposals like this that involve tort liability and other forms of private gun regulation.