In a Houston taqueria, a customer shot and killed a robbery suspect. Were his actions justified?

security footage still of a robbery suspect in a houston taco shop
Houston police want to talk to a man who shot and killed a robber inside a taqueria, an incident that was caught on the restaurant’s surveillance video. No charges have been filed according to police. (Ranchito Taqueria)

Just before midnight on Jan. 5, a masked man entered a taco shop in Houston and began robbing customers of their money at gunpoint. 

As the robbery suspect was collecting cash, a customer sitting in a booth brandished a gun and shot the man nine times from behind, killing him, according to multiple reports. The customer then retrieved the stolen cash and left the store before police arrived. 

headshot of daniel medwed
Daniel Medwed, professor of law and criminal justice and faculty director of professional development, poses for a portrait. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

The incident was captured on surveillance footage that has been circulating online. Police said the suspect was wielding a fake weapon at the time of the robbery. 

“He had a plastic pistol, possibly an aero soft or possibly a little BB pistol,” Houston police said.

Police are now looking to speak to the customer about the shooting. Could he be in any legal jeopardy, or is this an open-and-shut case of self-defense?

Daniel Medwed, Northeastern University distinguished professor of law and criminal justice, says there are a number of factors that still need fleshing out. 

“In general, a person is justified in defending himself or others with a firearm if he reasonably believes that deadly force is about to be used against one of them,” Medwed says. 

“The key questions here are whether the plastic gun appeared to be real—that is, was there a reasonable belief in the threat—and whether the robber posed an imminent danger,” he says.

In most states, the use of deadly force in instances of self-defense is legal, so long as a person “reasonably believes” there is an “imminent danger” (meaning a threat of serious injury or death), and that the deadly force was “necessary and appropriate” at the time it was used, according to Shouse California Law Group.

In Texas, “a person is justified in using force against another when and to the degree the actor reasonably believes the force is immediately necessary to protect the actor against the other’s use or attempted use of unlawful force,” according to the state’s penal code. Texas is also a stand-your-ground state, meaning a person has no duty to retreat from an assailant, and can use deadly force in defense of property, self or others. 

Medwed says the taqueria customer’s actions are thus likely lawful under Texas law. 

“My impression is that Texas has very generous rules related to self-defense and defense of others, which could make for an easier defense in Houston than in, say, Boston,” Medwed says. 

“An important limit, I think, in many places is that if the first bullet incapacitates the threatening person, then you may not be justified in continuing to shoot. That is, it hinges on whether the threat remains viable,” Medwed adds. 

As of Sept. 1, 2021, most Texans age 21 or older are permitted to carry a handgun in a holster without a license, “both openly and/or concealed.” Previously, a license to carry was required. 

Tanner Stening is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email him at Follow him on Twitter @tstening90.