The term castle doctrine refers to the legal right of a person to defend himself against an intruder in his home or other property, even should the use of deadly force be required. Under this legal theory, the homeowner is not required to retreat, but may stand his ground to defend himself, his home, or his property. To explore this concept, consider the following castle doctrine definition.
Definition of Castle Doctrine
- A legal doctrine that allows a person to use deadly force in protecting his/or home and inhabitants from an attack by someone intending to inflict serious bodily harm.
What is Castle Doctrine
When an intruder comes onto a person’s property, or into his home or business, for the purpose of committing a felony, or to cause bodily harm to the inhabitants, how much force that person can use in self protection varies by state. Castle doctrine holds that a person in his home, on his property, or in his place of business may use deadly force to protect himself from violent attack.
There are three types of self defense law that exist in the various states, each defining whether, and under what circumstances, deadly force may be used. These include (1) stand your ground, (2) castle doctrine, and (3) duty to retreat.
Stand Your Ground
A person facing a violent attack, in fear of serious bodily injury or being killed, may use any amount of force necessary to defend himself – even if deadly force is needed. The purpose of stand your ground laws is to protect people from criminal prosecution for using force in self defense.
In states with stand your ground laws, rather than requiring a victim to put forth a self-defense argument at trial, trial is avoided altogether, by granting immunity for such situations. Stand your ground rights apply, regardless where the victim is located at the time of the attack and defense.
Castle doctrine laws are similar to stand your ground, in that they offer immunity from prosecution when someone was defending himself or his property. The difference between castle doctrine and stand your ground is that castle doctrine applies only when the victim is in his home, or on his property, though this includes his place of business.
Duty to Retreat
Duty to retreat laws require a person being threatened with bodily harm retreat from the situation if possible before using deadly force to protect himself. The purpose for retreat laws is in recognition that any human life – even that of an attacker – is of such value that it should be preserved, if doing can be done by retreating. Even states with duty to retreat laws, however, recognize a person’s right to defend himself if attacked in his own home.
History of Castle Doctrine
Americans have held to the principle that every person has the right to protect himself, his family, and his property. This follows the English common law ideal which recognized two types of self defense: Justifiable homicide, and killing by “chance-medley.”
Justifiable homicide refers to the killing of an individual when the person doing the killing believes there is an imminent threat to his, or someone else’s, safety. Homicide is justifiable when it serves to prevent serious harm to others. This principle has its roots in the medieval courts, to absolve the executioner, who only carried out the Kings’ orders.
Chance-medley, on the other hand, referred to the brewing of a perfect storm of sorts, when a squabble escalated until one of the parties killed the other. The party doing the killing might claim he did it in self defense, but this would only be successful if evidence showed he tried to retreat first. If he was successful in proving the killing was in self defense, the act might have been excused, but not justified.
In his late Eighteenth Century writings, English jurist Sir William Blackstone wrote:
“[T]he law sets so high a value upon the life of a man that it always intends some misbehavior in the person who takes it away, unless by the command or express permission of the law.”
This means that, should someone take a man’s life – which is of the highest value – it must be assumed he is guilty of some misconduct. In considering this caveat, someone who first provokes a quarrel, then pursues it until it becomes violent, cannot claim “self defense.”
Self Defense State-by-State
As of 2017, 24 states have some form of stand your ground, or castle doctrine laws. These states do not generally require a person being threatened with violence to retreat before resorting to force, though some impose a limited duty to retreat, if something as simple as going inside and locking the doors would suffice.
Stand Your Ground / Castle Doctrine States
- New Hampshire
- North Carolina
- South Carolina
- South Dakota
- West Virginia
Duty to Retreat States
- New Jersey
- New York
- North Dakota
- Rhode Island
Controversy over Castle Doctrine and Stand Your Ground Laws
In recent years, a great deal of controversy has arisen over whether stand your ground laws, and even castle doctrine laws, help more than their potential to hurt. Those tasked with enforcing laws, and prosecuting criminals, have generally claimed that these laws make it difficult to prosecute people who shoot so-called intruders, then claim self defense.
Example of Castle Doctrine Defense
Adam and Kenneth get into a serious argument on Kenneth’s front porch. Kenneth pulls out a gun and shoots Adam, killing him. A neighbor calls the police after hearing the gun shot, and when the officers arrive, Kenneth tells them he felt threatened, believing his life was in danger, and so he shot Adam. The state had a castle doctrine law, so Kenneth feels he has the right to protect himself in his home. He tells police that, since there were no witnesses to the argument, there is no one to confirm or contest Kenneth’s claim that he was afraid for his life.
During their investigation, police discover the two men were arguing over a woman they were both seeing. They also discover that Adam was unarmed, never went into the house, and Kenneth has no bruises or other marks to suggest he was in a serious struggle prior to using deadly force against Adam.
In this example of castle doctrine defense, Kenneth is claiming an absolute right to protect himself and his property. This may make it difficult for prosecutors to charge him with a crime for killing Adam. The intent of castle doctrine and stand your ground laws was to relieve individuals from the threat of prosecution when they use deadly force to protect themselves in the face of serious bodily injury or death. It has had the unexpected effect of allowing certain people to get away with unreasonable use of force.
Leading up to Florida’s passing of its Stand-Your-Ground law, Miami police chief John Timoney argued against what he considered to be a dangerous and unnecessary law. Timoney said:
“[w]hether it’s trick-or-treaters or kids playing in the yard of someone who doesn’t want them there or some drunk guy stumbling into the wrong house, you’re encouraging people to possibly use deadly physical force where it shouldn’t be used.”
Distortion of Castle Doctrine Example in Florida Killing
On February 26, 2012, a man by the name of George Zimmerman confronted a black teen he thought didn’t belong in the gated housing community in which he lived. A confrontation ensued – which was not reliably witnessed by anyone else – and Zimmerman ended up shooting 17-year old Trayvon Martin to death. Martin, who was armed only with Skittles and a can of iced tea, never made it home from the convenience store that rainy afternoon.
Zimmerman had called police before confronting the teen, saying “This guy looks like he’s up to no good or on drugs or something.” During the confrontation, the two landed on the ground as they were fighting, and Zimmerman told police he thought the boy had something in his hands, and that he had shot Martin in self defense.
This incident sparked a nationwide cry of racism and injustice, with calls for Justice for Trayvon. Many people across the U.S. found it difficult to understand how the case was proceeding in the face of Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law. The law allows people, who have a reasonable fear that their lives are in jeopardy, to act in self defense – even to the level of responding with deadly force.
Florida’s law proved to deviate sharply from the long-accepted castle doctrine, expanding the philosophy to consider that, if a person is in a place he has a right to be, he has a right to defend himself without first giving ground. This relatively new concept holds that, like a bubble around a person’s body, the “ground” on which he may make a “stand” travels with him, even as he travels right up to someone else’s face.
Investigators in the Trayvon Martin incident had to proceed with caution, making sure to cover all bases, as simply arresting the shooter might open the state up to a lawsuit. For several weeks, in this example of castle doctrine expansion, prosecutors didn’t have enough evidence to dispute Zimmerman’s claim of self defense.
On April 11, 2012, George Zimmerman was formally charged with second-degree murder. The trial began June 24, 2013, and on July 13, 2013 – only one day after jury deliberation began – Zimmerman was found not guilty on all charges.
Related Legal Terms and Issues
- Civil Lawsuit – A lawsuit brought about in court when one person claims to have suffered a loss due to the actions of another person.
- Criminal Prosecution – Legal proceedings against an individual for criminal behavior.
- Homicide – The killing of another human being.
- Justifiable Homicide – The killing of one person by another that is committed without malice or criminal intent.