What is the Castle Doctrine?

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Mar 1, 2021

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The Castle Doctrine is a self-defense theory which gives a homeowner the right to protect his home with the use of deadly force. The Castle Doctrine originally emerged as a common law theory. Since then, a majority of states have implemented some statutory version of the Castle Doctrine. If a defendant successfully presents a Castle Doctrine defense, then he is completely exonerated of any wrong doing. Read on to learn more about the proof required to assert a self-defense theory based on the Castle Doctrine.

History of Castle Doctrine

As mentioned, the Castle Doctrine first began as a common law theory. This means that it wasn’t a written law, but rather an understanding everyone had of the rule. 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 the 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 the Castle Doctrine statutes differ by state, many states utilize the same basic requirements for a Castle Doctrine defense.

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Current Requirements of Castle Doctrine

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 theory, the burden of proof for a Castle Doctrine defense is on the defendant. The first component of a Castle Doctrine defense is that a person must be inside of his home. Home or habitation in Castle Doctrine statutes 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. 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.

The second component is that the victim must be attempting to commit or have committed an unlawful entry into the defendant’s home. Walking across a person’s front yard will not qualify. There must be some actual evidence that the victim was at least attempting an unlawful entry. The Castle Doctrine will not apply to a person who was in the home lawfully, but the defendant decided to force 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 the Castle Doctrine as a defense. Many states, like Indiana, prohibit the use of force against peace officers as well. Proving that the victim was engaged in an unlawful entry is critical to a Castle Doctrine defense because the unlawful entry will affect a defendant’s right to use deadly force.

The third component of the Castle Doctrine is proving that the use of deadly force was reasonable. Many states follow Florida and Mississippi, and actually have a presumption in their Castle Doctrines that if a person is entering a home unlawfully, that he is doing so with the purpose to commit an act of force or violence. This means the defendant’s burden of proof regarding the use of force is reduced because he doesn’t have to put on more evidence of reasonable. Some states do not have this presumption. Instead of proving just an unlawful entry, a defendant would also have to show that he was in actual danger of death or major bodily injury from the person trying to enter his home. These states do not authorize the use of deadly force to protect only property. In these few states, if a defendant does not prove he was in real danger of physical injury, then he can not claim or use a Castle Doctrine defense.

The last major component, and most contested, of the Castle Doctrine is the duty to retreat. Older common law versions of the Castle Doctrine required some duty to retreat or avoid the conflict. However, after writing their own Castle Doctrine statutes, many states no longer require defendants to run from their home or to another area of their home before using deadly force. The states are split on the issue of this duty because of the number of incidents of people using deadly force on what turned out to be serious misunderstandings of the Castle Doctrine. To the extent possible, any person should know and understand the duty to retreat laws in their state before using deadly force.

How to Use the Castle Doctrine

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 an instruction in a jury charge on the Castle Doctrine theory of self-defense. Jury instructions are the set of rules and law that the jury receives that tells them what they can and cannot do. Without the jury instruction on the Castle Doctrine defense, the jury has no way of exonerating a defendant in their verdict.

Because the Castle Doctrine is a defensive theory, anyone seeking to use it should remember that the burden is on them. Some law enforcement agencies will acknowledge or preserve evidence when they see that the Castle Doctrine applies. However, not all law enforcement agencies are this straightforward. Out of an abundance of caution, anyone charged with a home invasion shooting should at least consult with a criminal defense attorney to insure that evidence and testimony critical to their Castle Doctrine defense is preserved. A criminal defense attorney can also insure that the same evidence reaches a jury in the form of a proper instruction.

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