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Home Invasions, Self Defense, and Owning Weapons in Costa Rica

Editor's Note: We wish to thank Michael Carbone, Outlier Legal Services, and representatives of the Grecia police for the following information. This overview has also  been edited and augmented by Que Pasa Grecia.

A few very basic points: Costa Rica is a relatively young country as its judicial system. Costa Rican laws are not the same as those of United States or Canada. Costa Rica has moved from an accusatory criminal law to a criminal law in defense of the accused. This is because of a community movement toward human rights and the restorative rights of the victim instead of penalizing the accused. However while currently not the case, some feel that the judicial system here may evolve in the future to honor and defend the rights of the victim(s) as much as it currently does honor the rights of the defendant(s). Be aware that you have a responsibility in any defense: your response cannot exceed the threat. If you are deemed to have used excessive force, you are subject to be charged with a crime and could face both fines and imprisonment.

You are cautioned not react to threats in the same way you might in your state or province back home. Appropriate reactions to threats (within the jurisdiction of Costa Rica) in defense of your property and person (the relevant law of "legitimate defense" applies) can be seen below. (These are general guidelines and your specific situation may include criteria that may alter your circumstances and the appropriate response for the situation.):

1. If a person walks onto your property not making threats and/or with no weapons, it is not entirely true that you are not legally entitled to touch or assault them. It will depend on the specific scenario. i.e. If a trespasser breaks into my house violently (breaking a window) I am entitled to defend my property toward the threat and the imminent danger. Another example could be if it is late at night and someone breaks in, I am not required to ask if he is armed or not, I can defend myself property and family.

2. If you believe the "trespasser" is being aggressive or they are armed, use of "minimum force" is allowed. Stronger force may be permitted as is stated in the examples above. Here it has been mentioned that the use of pepper spray, a pellet gun, or even a shotgun loaded with salt shot or other non-lethal protective weapon would be legal as long as your force will not threaten permanent injury to a vital area (i.e. head or heart).

3. If an assailant is armed with a weapon such as a bat, a gun, rifle or a sharp-edged device or knife, any of which are being used in a threatening manner, defensive force (including lethal force) is permitted. However, use of force is governed by the principle of proportionality, which states that the method of defense has to be proportional to the method of attack. (This is explained later below.)  However in defense of your person, other persons or property, you are NOT allowed to strike multiple blows or fire multiple shots beyond the effect of immediately negating the threat.

4. Attacks (from the rear) on a retreating assailant are not acceptable or legal.

5. Using an unregistered or illegal weapon is forbidden and also illegal. Legal weapons such as single-shot pepper spray, pellet guns, and we suspect even large knives (machetes) are able to be purchased without a permit or license and are available here in limited locations. Gun or rifle ownership requires an extensive legal process. (See below.)

We have been requested to add here some basic information regarding legitimate self-defense.

Article 28 of the criminal law code establishes the following key terms:

Imminent danger / Illegitimate aggression:
there needs to be an imminent danger or aggression (crime) performed against a person or right, own or alien.
Repel or prevent: The main purpose of self-defense is to repel or prevent an attack before it happens. Excessive use of force will be punished
Proportionality or reasonableness: Much has been said about this principle, however, The Criminal Chamber of the Supreme Court of Justice has established, that the proportionality does not mean that If I am being attack with a specific weapon, I must repel the attack with a weapon of same characteristics, i.e., if I am being threatened with a knife it does not mean I can only repel the attack with another knife. I can repel an attack with a gun if someone threatens me with a knife but a shot to a non-lethal part of the body to repeal the attack will be proportional, instead of just firing 5 shots straight to the heart or head.

Every case is different. One must take into consideration that every case is different and that the circumstances of the action will be investigated to determine if a person acted in self-defense or with an excess of force.

Requirements to own a gun, shotgun or rifle is a lengthy and convoluted process. The applicant must:

  1. be a Costa Rica citizen or Costa Rican Resident without limitations;
  2. have a "firma digital," which is an on-line digital signature (available for a fee at some branches of Banco National and Banco Popular, BAC San José, BCR, Coopenae, BCT and most other banks for different fees);
  3. be fingerprinted;
  4. take and pass a psychological test(s). (Specialists administer these tests);
  5. take and pass practical and theoretical tests administered by the Ministerio Publico, most shooting ranges will set up this for you
  6. purchase and register a legally permitted weapon; and
  7. regularly renew the permission to carry, as required.
  8. Note: Shotguns require registration but do not require permission to carry.

Your editor's personal recommendations:

1) if at all possible, always try to avoid confrontations with trespassers, burglars, robbers, assailants, etc. Have the local police department number close at hand. Dial it or "911," head for a neighbor's house or find a safe place and wait for police assistance to arrive. (The old adage here, "never bring a knife to a gunfight" should guide your actions;
2) the first responders to your crime will be the local "policia" (police) serving your immediate area;
3) if you have had a break in, robbery or burglary, always file a report. The local police will be on the scene first, take the report, or will help you file it with the O.I.J. or direct you as to how to contact them. Costa Rica's "F.B.I." is the O.I.J. They are in ultimately in charge of investigating the crime scene and the crime and solving it.

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