What is the Castle Doctrine?
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UPDATED: Jul 15, 2021
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Castle doctrine is a self-defense theory used in 23 states including Utah, Arkansas, Colorado, West Virginia, and others. It gives a homeowner the right to protect his home with the use of deadly force in the face of imminent danger. In some cases, it amounts to justifiable homicide. In short, if someone is threatening you or your family in your home in a castle state, you have the right to defend yourself up to the point of killing your attacker.
If a defendant successfully presents a castle doctrine defense, they are completely exonerated of any wrong doing. Keep in mind, not all states are castle states, and not all states with castle doctrine expect the same things when the defense is exercised. In some areas, you can be tried and convicted for manslaughter or other crimes even if you were facing an immediate peril of death. Regardless, castle doctrine sits on a foundation of the “reasonable person.” Read on to learn more about the proof required to assert a self-defense theory based on castle doctrine.
Where Did Castle Doctrine Come From?
As mentioned, castle doctrine first began as a common law theory. This means that it wasn’t a written law, but rather an understanding members of society shared. Under common law, a person could use deadly force to defend their home, but only after using every reasonable means to avoid the danger. Some states still use the common law version of castle doctrine, but most states have passed statutes to codify (or write down) the common law rules. The rules were passed so that everyone would understand what is required or expected of them before resorting to the use of deadly force. Even though castle doctrine statutes differ by state, many states utilize the same basic requirements for a castle doctrine defense.
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What Does Castle Doctrine Look Like Today?
The statutory definition of castle doctrine is far more formal than the common law version. States place limitations on where, when, and who can use deadly force, and the extent of force allowed. As with any self-defense laws, the burden of proof is on the defendant. The first component is that a person must be inside of their home. Home or habitation tend to be interpreted very strictly. The structure must be the place where the person regularly resides, like a house, apartment, or mobile home. The defendant must be inside the structure, not on the street nearby.
Some defendants have attempted to use the castle doctrine to defend the use of deadly force in their front yards. Courts have rejected this and said that the statute is very clear: in order to use the castle doctrine, the person must be in the home. Some states also allow the use of this defense when facing imminent peril in your car.
The second component is that the victim must be attempting to commit or have committed unlawful and/or forcible entry into the defendant’s home (i.e. their “castle”). Walking across your front yard will not qualify. There must be evidence that the victim was at least attempting an unlawful entry. It generally does not apply to a person who was in the home lawfully when the defendant decided to force them out. Similarly, the defendant cannot be the first aggressor of the confrontation with the alleged victim.
For example, if a defendant’s neighbor comes over for a casual visit, but the defendant decides to assault the victim after the otherwise consensual conversation turned ugly, the defendant as the first aggressor could not use this defense. Many states, like Indiana, prohibit the use of force against police officers as well. Proving that the victim was engaged in an unlawful entry is critical to this defense.
The third component of the castle doctrine law is proving that the use of deadly force was related to reasonable fear. Many states exercise a presumption that if a person is entering a home unlawfully, they are doing so with the purpose to commit an act of force or violence leading to bodily harm. This means the defendant’s burden of proof regarding the use of force is reduced.
Some states do not extend this presumption. Instead of just proving an unlawful entry, property owners would also have to show they were in danger of death or major bodily injury in their legal defense. These states do not authorize the use of deadly force to protect real property unless people are also in danger.
The last major component, and most contested, is the “duty to retreat” or “stand your ground,” both of which extend outside the home. Older common law versions of castle doctrine law required some duty to retreat when reasonable. However, after writing their own statutes, many states no longer require defendants to retreat before using deadly force.
States are split on the issue of this duty because of the number of casualties due to misunderstandings of castle doctrine. Many “stand your ground” states have faced heavy criticism and controversy around court cases (such as the death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin) and decisions handed down in criminal cases. Exactly what constitutes a threat that would allow people to use deadly force in a self-defense claim is murky.
Is Castle Doctrine Defense Right for My Case?
Before invoking castle doctrine, you should always talk to a qualified criminal defense attorney in your state. Not every unlawful activity justifies deadly force or defense of habitation. Regardless of whether or not this defense can be used, many public officials and court officers would tell you there is some level of sacredness in life.
In order to invoke a castle doctrine defense, a defendant must first offer some evidence showing that it fits the situation in which he was involved. As mentioned, this is the defendant’s burden, not the prosecution’s burden. Putting on evidence is only the first step in using the castle doctrine. After presenting evidence, a defendant must request jury instructions on the castle doctrine theory of self-defense. Jury instructions are the set of rules and law that the jury receives telling them what they can and cannot do. In other words, they are given guidance on how to judge the evidence presented to them.
Some law enforcement agencies will acknowledge or preserve evidence when they see possible castle doctrine defense. However, not all law enforcement agencies are this straightforward. Unfortunately, people have been arrested and convicted in cases that seemed clear cut, even in cases where no one was physically injured.
If you find yourself in fear of death or physical injuries from an unlawful intruder in your home, you can only exercise your best judgment at the time. Once the threat has passed, always call a criminal defense attorney. Even if you never go to court, they can advise you on what to preserve. They can also give you advice on what you should say to law officials to ensure the highest legal protection for you and your family. What you do immediately after an incident like this could also determine your civil liability and any civil actions taken against you later on. If you do end up in court, a criminal defense attorney can present the same evidence to protect you.