Americans expect their homes to be safe.
"A person's home is his castle, no matter how humble, no matter how shabby," says retired 1st Circuit Court Judge Jimmy Williams. That's an expectation that comes down to us from English common law.
"The place where you lay down at night is highly protected by the law," he said. "You don't expect someone to come in and cause you trouble in your home.
"That's why it's punishable by prison."
And that's why, under a certain set of circumstances, a criminal can go to jail for life if he breaks into someone's home. Prison with no chance of parole.
There are three levels of burglary in South Carolina:
* Third-degree burglary: When a person enters a building without consent and with the intent to commit a crime. A criminal can be sentenced up to five years for the first offense and 10 years for the second offense.
* Second-degree burglary: This level of burglary includes entering a home without consent with the intent of committing a crime. The criminal can be sentenced to no more than 10 years in prison.
The burglar can be sentenced up to 15 years, however, if he enters a building armed with a deadly weapon or threatens to use one, if he causes injury, if the crime happened at night, or if he has been convicted of burglary at least twice before.
* First-degree burglary: The most serious level of burglary occurs when the burglar enters a home carrying a deadly weapon, threatening to use a weapon or at night. It is punishable by 15 years to life. The law states "‘life' means until death."
First Circuit Solicitor David Pascoe said first-degree burglary "is classified as a violent crime and what is termed a most serious crime under the two-strikes law." Two such convictions, and a criminal would spend the rest of his life behind bars.
Pascoe said the law recognizes the danger in breaking into another person's home.
"There is a potential for violence. We don't want anyone to break into anyone's house, especially at night," he said.
And a second-degree burglary can easily become a first-degree burglary, for instance if a homeowner walks in on a burglar and the burglar picks up a kitchen knife.
Pascoe notes, "Burglary has nothing to do with the amount stolen. That's covered by the larceny statute."
He is unhappy with one aspect of the law. When state lawmakers changed several of the state's criminal penalties, they also changed the penalty for second-degree burglary.
"It used to carry 15 years; now it only carries 10 years," Pascoe said. "I don't understand why they did that.
"It's an awful invasion of privacy."
As a judge, Williams said, "The burglary I think is a candidate for a life sentence or a very long sentence is when the defendant goes into a stranger's home at night with the intent to rob that stranger or cause that stranger physical harm.
"That's what I look for and I think every judge looks for."
A recent example was an elderly couple forced into their home at gunpoint and robbed, he said. One man was sentenced to 25 years in prison in the home invasion, while the second man remains at large.
"They were strangers, and he went in the house with the intent to hurt them and steal from them," Williams said.
After such an event, "You feel violated pretty badly."
Victims of such crimes typically don't feel safe again, he said. "A lot of them put burglar alarms on their houses or move if they can."
If the suspect knows the victim, then the judge starts looking for the reason behind the burglary. Maybe the suspect was stealing. Maybe it was a drug deal gone bad.
Williams recalls one suspect who entered the house he once shared with his ex-girlfriend, hoping to reconcile. She wasn't home. He drank her beer. A solicitor at the time, Williams had the charge knocked down to trespassing.
Sometimes a burglar is turned in by his neighbors.
"They don't want you to hang him. They're tired of him coming to the house or stealing out of the yard," Williams said.
A judge may also consider if the defendant has been in trouble before, if the suspect was intoxicated or other circumstances, such as mental illness, in sentencing, he said.
"There is absolutely no appreciation in the world today for mental illness," Williams said.
Often the victims don't care if the suspect does time; they just want the judge to order restitution for their loss.
"That doesn't mean they're not going to jail."
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