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Is it okay for famous people to shoot trespassing paparazzi?

By: Olafur, Reykjavik, Iceland

A.B. Replies: You mean is it legal? Well, let's put it this way. Paparazzi are already getting shot--and run over, and throttled--in the course of their work, whether they are on private property or not. In most of those cases, we rarely hear about criminal complaints. Instead, when some neckless security guard blackens some paparazzo's beady little ferret eye outside of a nightclub or something, most of the action happens in civil court, with the photographer seeking tens of thousands in damages.

That isn't to say that some of these incidents aren't crimes. It's just that most of these cases never make it to the arrest stage, much less a jury. The LA County District Attorney's office declined to offer its own opinion on this, as did the Los Angeles City Attorney and the LA Police Department. They insist that each case is different, each case is special. Instead they pointed me to a couple of lawbooks. Here's what I can tell you:

First, with the killing. In California, you definitely can't get away with killing a trespasser unless you think the invader intends bodily harm, or some other very serious crime. That's according to a state criminal law book supplied by the LA City Attorney. You want the legalese? Here: "One cannot intentionally kill merely in defense of the habitation against a simple, nonfelonious trespasser who does not threaten violence to the person or the commission of a felony."

(My expert interpretation: Unless Nikons have started coming with attachable microwave beams that can fry a celebrity's shrunken little craw from the inside out, this B!tch would assume that a camera alone would not count as a physical threat.)

Second: Beat-downs. You can't kill a trespassing paparazzo, but can you thrash one? Sometimes. According to a book on California criminal jury instructions--CALCRIM--entry No. 3475, an owner or "lawful occupant" of a private space may first "request" that a trespasser beat it within a "reasonable time." If the interloper refuses, then the occupant can use "reasonable force" to boot him out. Lastly, if the trespasser "persists," the occupant can "increase the amount of force he or she uses in proportion to the force used by the trespasser and the threat the trespasser poses to the property."

(My interpretation, because the legal people are declining to offer their own: It would be tough to get away with just stomping on an intruding photographer's neck without at least asking him to leave first.)

Nonetheless, in Hollywood, it seems that it is always open season on the celebrity snappers.

Back in September of '05, when Sean Preston Federline was just a proto-hick living deep down in his momma's puttylike torso, somebody threw a baby shower in Malibu. The paparazzi showed up, and arrayed themselves on a nearby public property, hoping for a photo worthy of US Weekly's bumpwatch.

During all this, one paparazzo looked down and discovered that there was some sort of pellet lodged in his leg, and that his leg was all bloody, and that the pellet had come from a BB gun, and that the gun seemed to have been stationed somewhere very near where Britney Spears was getting festooned with $80 baby blankets. No charges were ever filed in that case--against Britney or anyone else--but the press has since lumped the incident into the growing trend of showbiz people "fighting back" against "stalkerazzi."

We suspect Britney may have gotten her learnin' from her momma, Lynne, who has been accused of running over the foot of a paparazzo with an SUV. In that case, the paparazzo was photographing Spears and her mom in a Santa Monica parking lot. Responding officers concluded that Lynne had acted within the bounds of the law, but the photographer filed a suit last month in civil court.

And Woody Harrelson last month allegedly grabbed the neck of a videographer on a public street outside of a club. (Harrelson, apparently, did not feel like being taped that day.) The incident, last I heard, was being investigated by the LAPD.

Let's just hope the cops don't send a videographer to the crime scene.