You're awoken from a deep sleep because your partner hears someone tiptoeing around downstairs. Startled, you remember you have a shotgun, so you retrieve it. When is it legal to kill an intruder in your home? The answer depends on your state's laws and the particular circumstances of the intrusion.
Under English common law, a man's home is his castle, and he has the right to defend it. The modern American "castle doctrine" laws allow you to use lethal force against an unlawful intruder in your own home. You don't have to retreat from your own home even if you could safely do so.
All states have adopted some variation of this criminal law doctrine. The castle doctrine is different from "stand your ground" laws adopted by some states. It is not specifically invoked via statute but has developed over time through the Model Penal Code, case law, and precedent. The castle doctrine also can provide civil immunity in a wrongful death suit. But most of the time, the castle doctrine is used as a defense in criminal cases.
How Does the Castle Doctrine Work?
The castle doctrine is a self-defense justification for the use of deadly force against an intruder in an individual's home. The doctrine may shield you from criminal prosecution – and sometimes civil liability – for shooting an unarmed trespasser. In most cases, you must reasonably believe that such physical force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm. The individual claiming self-defense under the castle doctrine has the burden of proof.
Each state has its own version of the doctrine. States with a broader version of the castle doctrine allow the use of deadly force against almost any trespasser who has broken into your home. Other states take a narrower approach. Some states require evidence that the intruder was attempting to commit a felony after breaking into your home. In addition, some states allow for the use of reasonable force against a police officer in the event of an unlawful arrest or a no-knock raid.
Examples of Different Jurisdiction's Castle Doctrines
In North Carolina, which has a broad version of the castle doctrine, it's easy to establish self-defense. This is because a person who has made an unlawful entry into your home is presumed to intend violence. In addition, you are presumed to have a reasonable fear of harm. These presumptions may keep you out of jail if, for instance, you shoot your unarmed neighbor who was searching for his tools in your garage. The defense of your occupied vehicle or place of business is treated the same way.
Colorado has a "make my day" statute, which grants homeowners absolute immunity under certain conditions, if they use deadly force against an intruder in their home.
In contrast, Illinois has a more limited version of the castle doctrine. In Illinois, you have the legal right to use deadly force only if an intruder is engaged in the commission of a forcible felony or enters your home in a "violent, riotous or tumultuous manner." A forcible felony includes murder, aggravated assault, and sexual assault. Your vehicle and workplace are not part of your castle in Illinois.
Castle Doctrine vs. Stand-Your-Ground
Both the castle doctrine and stand-your-ground laws are affirmative defenses to criminal charges. Yet stand-your-ground laws are distinct from the castle doctrine. Stand-your-ground laws apply when you face a threat of violence in other locations, such as on a public street.
In general, stand-your-ground laws allow you to lawfully use force to defend yourself and others from serious bodily harm. In other words, you have no duty to retreat. However, certain conditions must be met, such as using reasonable force that's proportional to the threat.
Only about half of the states have stand-your-ground laws. Texas and Florida have some of the strongest self-defense and defense of property laws in the country. Texas law states that individuals do not have a duty to retreat when they have a reasonable belief they are in danger of bodily injury or death. However, the individual cannot have provoked the attack. In addition, the individual cannot have been engaged in criminal activity, other than a traffic infraction or Class C misdemeanor.
In contrast, Connecticut is not a stand-your-ground state and requires an individual to retreat from the situation if they are able. In places that lack stand-your-ground laws, it may be difficult to establish self-defense outside of your home if you could've safely retreated.
Contact a Criminal Defense Lawyer To Learn More
The issues surrounding self-defense laws, especially the castle doctrine, can be complex. Whether you're curious about your state's laws or you're actually being investigated for harming an aggressor, it's in your best interest to speak with a skilled criminal defense attorney near you.