Sheriff Roger Harris

Spotsylvania authorities aim to arm citizens with knowledge

by | Mar 20, 2024 | ALLFFP, Police and Fire, Spotsylvania

Three teenage siblings fired upon after turning into the wrong driveway. 

Four bikers threatened with a firearm while resting in a cul-de-sac. 

An Amazon delivery driver shown a weapon after getting stuck in the mud at a residence where he’d just delivered a package. 

Those three incidents occurred in Spotsylvania County in the past three years, prompting a collaborative effort from law enforcement and the county’s branch of the NAACP to make citizens aware of Virginia laws dictating threats of bodily harm and the appropriate use of deadly force. 

“The reason why the NAACP addressed this issue is because each of those incidents involved people of color,” Spotsylvania NAACP President Moe Petway said. “We wanted to say that, in Spotsylvania County, you can’t just pull a gun on someone because they tried to turn around or turned in the wrong direction.” 

All three white men involved in the incidents were prosecuted. 

Brent David Alford was found guilty of shooting into an occupied vehicle with malice and sentenced to five years of jail time with 3 ½ suspended after a bullet was found lodged in the cushion of the backseat of the vehicle carrying the three teens.  

“That one was by far the worst because the vehicle was shot, and it was shot between the two children in the backseat,” Spotsylvania Sheriff’s Office Maj. Elizabeth Scott said. “And it was merely for pulling into the wrong driveway.” 

Dennis Lee Berry, who brandished a weapon at the bikers, was convicted of misdemeanor brandishing a firearm and received a six-month sentence with all but 12 days suspended. 

Rondall Shiflett, who was charged with brandishing a firearm at the Amazon delivery driver, had his case dismissed on March 14 after coming to an agreement called an “accord and satisfaction” with the victim, said Spotsylvania Commonwealth’s Attorney Ryan Mehaffey. 

Mehaffey said he hopes prosecuting offenders sends the message that displaying firearms or shooting at people simply for being on one’s property won’t be tolerated in Spotsylvania. However, he also believes there needs to be more education on the subject. 

“I hope that’s part of the message, but I am also reserved about thinking that will solve the misconception,” Mehaffey said of prosecuting cases. “It is a very common and widespread misconception that you can just chase somebody off your property at the point of a gun just because they’re on your property … In all the different incidents, they’re on someone’s property and we see the threat of deadly force presented and that is not lawful. That’s what we’re trying to clear up.” 

Mehaffey penned an announcement that the sheriff’s office posted to its Facebook page as the first installment of a planned monthly “Did You Know?” campaign. 

Mehaffey noted in the post that the amount of force a person may lawfully use to defend their property is different from the amount of force that may be lawfully used to defend oneself or another human. 

In addition to that message, Maj. Troy Skebo said he hopes to also inform citizens of laws that allow hunters to search for their wandering dogs on another person’s property — without a firearm. 

“A person has a right to use force for the protection of their property, but the force must be reasonable in relation to the harm threatened,” Mehaffey’s post stated. “Virginia law is clear: force that endangers human life or does great bodily harm, or that threatens human life or great bodily harm, is an unreasonable use of force when used in defense of property.

“A deadly weapon may not be brandished solely in defense of personal property, and an owner of land has no right to threaten a mere trespasser with a deadly weapon.” 

As of Tuesday afternoon, the post had 114 reactions, 64 comments and was shared 32 times. The responses were mixed. Many stated they would defend their property and family at all costs, reasoning that it is better to be prosecuted for an offense than to attend the funeral of a loved one. 

Other commenters argued that it should be common sense that threatening bodily harm or deadly force is illegal when a life is not at risk. 

“I don’t know where the thought process came from where, all of a sudden, you feel like you need to have the militia protecting your driveway,” Scott said.

Scott said the COVID-19 pandemic intensified the issue because unrecognized vehicles were more prevalent in neighborhoods as people increasingly ordered goods and services online.

She noted that some delivery drivers — not including the Amazon driver in the Spotsylvania case — began using U-Haul vans or their personal vehicles. She said although corporations did not do a good job of communicating that to the public, an unfamiliar vehicle or a “no trespassing” sign “does not give you carte blanche to brandish a weapon.” 

Sheriff Harris said he will use his platform to spread the message as well, stating, “The biggest thing with me is trying to protect and educate the public.” 

Mehaffey said citizens should not conflate the laws regarding defense of property with the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which protects the right to bear arms. 

“It is not so much a Second Amendment issue as it is a misconception that people feel like they can use deadly force to defend property,” Mehaffey said. “It is sometimes confusing because we have passionate conversation strictly about guns. But that is not what we’re talking about here.” 

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