There are laws throughout the U.S. that allow people to defend themselves when threatened, but the latitude that they have to do so varies from state to state. Many states have enacted so-called stand your ground laws that remove any duty to retreat before using force in self-defense. Florida passed the first such law in 2005.
Some states have self-defense laws that are similar to stand your ground but with one key difference. While they also remove any duty to retreat, these laws apply to specific locations such as one's home or place of work and are often referred to as "castle doctrine" or "defense of habitation" laws. Most U.S. states have castle doctrine laws.
Types of Self-Defense Laws
Although some states use a blend of doctrines, self-defense laws generally fall into the following three categories:
- Stand Your Ground: No duty to retreat from the situation before resorting to deadly force; not limited to your home, place of work, etc.
- Castle Doctrine: No duty to retreat before using deadly force if you are in your home or yard (some states include a place of work and occupied vehicles)
- Duty to Retreat: Duty to retreat from a threatening situation if you can do so with complete safety
Stand Your Ground States
It's important to understand that even states that have stand your ground laws still have certain restrictions when it comes to using force in self-defense. For example, they may require that the threat of perceived harm is objectively reasonable and that the force used be proportional to the threat. Stand your ground laws may also require that the person using self-defense be at the location lawfully (no trespassing, for example) and not be the initial aggressor in the altercation.
States that have passed stand your ground laws include:
Note: Some states have adopted similar doctrines through judicial interpretation of their self-defense laws -- but they're not included on this list.
States That Impose a Duty to Retreat
On the other end of the legal spectrum, some states impose a duty to retreat. A duty to retreat generally means that you can't resort to deadly force in self-defense if you can safely avoid the risk of harm or death (by walking away, for example). If that's not an option, say if you were cornered or pinned down and facing serious harm or death, then you would be authorized to use deadly force in self-defense.
- New Jersey
- New York
- North Dakota
- Rhode Island
It's important to note that, even in duty-to-retreat states, there's usually no duty to retreat from an intruder in your home (and, in some states, your car or place of work). These states all adhere to some version of the castle doctrine as well.
Ask an Attorney About Stand Your Ground Laws in Your State
While some states let you stand your ground, in others, you may be prosecuted for killing someone if you could have safely walked away from the confrontation. To learn more about self-defense laws in your state, contact a local criminal defense attorney.