About the Castle Doctrine
The Castle Doctrine (also known as a Castle Law or a Defense of Habitation Law) is a legal doctrine that designates an individuals place of residence or, in some states, a place legally occupied, as a place in which the individual has protection from illegal trespassing and violent attack. The law provides individuals the legal right to use deadly force to defend that place, from violent attack or intrusion that leads to attack. In these situations, use of deadly force resulting in death may be defended as justifiable homicide.
Castle Doctrines are legislated by state and each state differs with respect to the specific instances in which the Castle Doctrine can be invoked or deadly force can be used. Typically, a variety of conditions must be met before a person can legally use the Castle Doctrine:
An intruder must be making (or have made) an attempt to unlawfully and/or forcibly enter an occupied home, business or car.
The intruder must be acting illegally. The Castle Doctrine does not give the right to attack officers of the law acting in the course of their legal duties The occupant(s) of the home must reasonably believe that the intruder intends to inflict serious bodily harm or death upon an occupant of the home The occupant(s) of the home must reasonably believe that the intruder intends to commit some other felony, such as arson or burglary The occupant(s) of the home must not have provoked or instigated an intrusion, or provoked or instigated an intruder to threaten or use deadly force The occupant(s) of the home may be required to attempt to exit the house or otherwise retreat (this is called the “Duty to retreat” and most self-defense statutes referred to as examples of “Castle Doctrine” expressly state that the homeowner has no such duty) In all cases, the occupant(s) of the home must be there legally, must not be fugitives from the law, must not be using the Castle Doctrine to aid or abet another person in being a fugitive from the law, and must not use deadly force upon an officer of the law or an officer of the peace while they are performing or attempting to perform their legal duties.
Civil Lawsuit Immunity
In addition to providing a defense against criminal prosecution, some state versions of the Castle Doctrine, including those with a “Stand-Your-Ground clause”, also have a clause which provides immunity from lawsuits filed on behalf of the assailant for damages/injury resulting from the use of lethal force. Without this clause, it is possible for an assailant to sue for medical bills, property damage, disability, and pain and suffering as a result of the injuries inflicted by the defender, or for their next-of-kin to sue for wrongful death in the case of a fatality. Even if successfully refuted, the defendant (the homeowner/defender) must often pay thousands of dollars in legal costs as a result of such lawsuits, and thus without immunity, such civil action could be used for revenge against a defender acting lawfully.
The only exceptions to this civil lawsuit immunity are situations of excessive force, where the defender used deadly force on a subdued, cooperative, or disabled assailant. A situation meeting this exception invalidates the criminal “castle defense” as well. An individual who uses deadly force in self-defense is still liable for damages or injuries to third parties who were not acting criminally at the time of the defensive action.
Duty To Retreat
Castle Doctrine laws alleviate an individuals duty to retreat from an illegal intruder when one is lawfully in their own home. Said another way, any state that imposes a duty to retreat while in the home does not have have a Castle Doctrine clause, as the duty-to-retreat clause expressly imposes an obligation upon the individual to retreat as far as possible and verbally announce their intent to use deadly force, before they can be legally justified to defend themselves with deadly force.
States that do not require the announcement to be “verbal”, other indicators may be used. These are typically not defined by statute, and would be left to the court’s interpretation, but may include things such as laser sights or the cocking of a firearm. In the majority of jurisdictions warning shots are illegal, and brandishing the weapon in a threatening manner can result in criminal charges.
Stand Your Ground
Some states expressly relieve an individual of any duty to retreat or announce their intent to use deadly force before they can be legally justified in doing so to defend themselves. Clauses that state this fact are commonly referred to as “Stand Your Ground”, “Line In The Sand” or “No Duty To Retreat” clauses. These clauses state that a defender has no duty or requirement to abandon a place in which they have a legal right to be, or to give up ground to an attacker. Some states differentiate between incidents occurring inside a home or business and those that occur in public places, meaning that there may be a duty to retreat from an attacker in public where there is not a duty to retreat from an individuals own property.
“Stand your ground” governs U.S. federal case law in which self-defense is asserted against a charge of criminal homicide. In the 1895 case of Beard v U.S., the Supreme Court ruled that a man who was “where he had the right to be” when he came under attack and “…did not provoke the assault, and had at the time reasonable grounds to believe, and in good faith believed, that the deceased intended to take his life, or do him great bodily harm…was not obliged to retreat, nor to consider whether he could safely retreat, but was entitled to stand his ground.”
IMPORTANT NOTICE: It is your responsibility to know your rights under the law. For additional information about a particular area, consult that area’s legislation or contact the local Attorney General Office.