LEADING ARTICLE:In defence of the plucky citizen

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Everyone admires the plucky citizen who wrestles the villain to the ground. We all wonder how we would react to the intruder trying to burgle our house or break into our car. At a time when the police seem unable to control crime, and fear of violence is increasing, acts of individual courage carry particular appeal. They offer hope that good will overcome evil.

But tackling criminals can go wrong. Heroes can end up dead. They can also find themselves in the dock. No one knows yet whether Nick Baungartner, the businessman involved at the weekend in a fatal struggle with a burglar, will be charged over the intruder's death.

Indeed, legal precedent is extremely grey on the question of self-defence and protection of property. The law is plain enough: it allows a citizen to use "reasonable force" against an attacker or burglar. Court interpretations, on the other hand, are unpredictable.

Last year an 82-year-old man had to pay pounds 4,000 compensation after he fired his shotgun at an intruder who was breaking into his allotment shed. In other instances, householders have been acquitted after killing burglars. The most celebrated case in the last century involved a man in his seventies who surprised four burglars and killed three of them with a carving knife. He was awarded a knighthood.

Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, has recently entered the debate. He contends that the police are over-zealous in charging people with offences such as assault when they seek to defend their property with violence. The problem is that it is impossible to lay down clear rules as to what a householder should be allowed to do to an intruder. No one, after all, can be expected to weigh up precise rules of engagement when a menacing figure lurks in the darkness. As one judge said: "Detached reflection can't be expected in the presence of an uplifted knife."

But a couple of principles should guide juries. First, people must be able to use potentially lethal violence when they think their lives or those of others are in danger. Second, we should be entitled to defend our goods with physical force. But this dispensation is limited. A person cannot, for example, be permitted to shoot a burglar departing with the video recorder. Life - even that of a burglar - is more important than property.

These ideas currently guide the law and distinguish Britain from the United States, where trespassers enjoy virtually no legal protection. This difference was illustrated when a Japanese tourist was shot dead after ringing a doorbell in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He wanted to ask for directions to a Hallowe'en party. The householder's lawyer said that Americans had the "absolute legal right" to answer everyone who comes to their door with a gun. The man was acquitted of murder.

In Britain, the law and juries must strike a sensible balance. Citizens defending their property deserve our respect and a supportive legal attitude. That cannot mean anything goes. But there are grounds for believing that the present balance needs shifting a little in the direction of the plucky citizen.