Montana’s Castle Doctrine Under Fire After Fatal Shooting

Being able to defend yourself in your own home is a pretty basic right. The Castle Doctrine law allows people to protect themselves and their property without fear of prosecution, but one shooting in Montana is putting the state’s self-defense laws under a microscope.

This time, it all started over a woman. According to reports, Heather Fredenberg was cheating on her husband, Dan, with a man by the name of Brice Harper. On the day of the shooting, Heather went to spend the day with Harper. Dan suspected his wife was with Harper, so he drove to Harper’s house to confront them. Dan spotted their car on the road and followed them to Harper’s residence.

Heather told Harper not to answer the door if her husband came. Rather than giving him the cold shoulder, though, Harper grabbed his pistol and stood in his garage with the door open. Fredenberg entered Harper’s garage, at which point Harper shot Dan three times. Fredenberg later died as a result of his injuries.

Harper told police, I told him I had a gun, but he just kept coming at me,” and that he was “charging at him, like he was on a mission.” But that’s where the story ends. Harper was not arrested and he will not be facing charges. The Flathead County attorney decided not to prosecute Harper because he was protected under Montana’s Castle Doctrine law.

Those are the facts, so now we can get into all of the sticky nuances and legal implications. First off, we can all agree that people have a right to defend themselves on their own property. The problem is figuring out where self-defense ends and having a legal excuse to kill begins.
Dan and Heather Fredenberg
Let’s not beat around the bush too much with this one. To put it bluntly, it looks like Harper had both an excuse and a motive to kill Fredenberg, and he took it. Some news organizations, such as The NY Times and Slate, picked up on that and have blasted Montana’s castle doctrine.

Was the shooting a legitimate self-defense or murder fueled by a love triangle? It’s hard to say without a trial. According to the Facebook page JusticeForDanFredenberg, Harper was heard saying that he “would blow Dan’s head off.” But on the other side of the coin, it does seem that Harper acted within the law. Fredenberg trespassed on Harper’s property and it would have been reasonable to suspect that Fredenberg was there to throw some punches.

This case sucks. There’s really no other way to put it. People should be able to protect themselves in their own home, but the details of the case are sketchy enough that it should probably go to court. If it really was self-defense then Harper should be able to clear his name. Alternatively, an investigation might lead to incriminating evidence.

But should we throw out the baby with the bath water? Should we do away with these, as Emily Bazelon of Slate puts it, “Go-Ahead-and-Shoot laws (that) encourage rather than deter violence?”

No, probably not. There will always be sucky cases like these that exploit otherwise effective laws. The legal system will put plenty of rapists in jail, but every once in a while a false accusation will incriminate an innocent man just because he pissed off the wrong woman. Should we ditch rape laws? No, that’s just silly.

The solution isn’t to approach this with an all-or-nothing attitude, that Castle Doctrine laws are either justified 100 percent of the time or they are completely flawed and should be removed. Why not keep a law that by-and-large protects law-abiding citizens who really are defending themselves against armed robbers in the night. Why not also pursue criminal action against people who exploit the legal system for their own personal benefit? That’s how we handle every other law out there. Keep the ones that protect people, but investigate when something is fishy. 

Oh, and one final note. How are the happy Heather Fredenberg and Brice Harper doing now that the shooting is over? Heather filed a restraining order against Harper, claiming that he threatened her. So, we’ll let you draw your own conclusions about that plot twist.

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