An Overview of the 'Castle Doctrine' and 'Stand Your Ground' Laws

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Recent events involving the use of deadly force by private individuals have brought the so-called "Castle Doctrine" and "stand your ground" laws under intense public scrutiny. Both based on the universally acknowledged right of self-defense, what are these increasingly controversial legal principles? 

"Stand your ground" laws allow people who believe they face a reasonable threat of death of great bodily harm to "meet force with force" rather than retreat from their attacker.

Similarly, "Castle Doctrine" laws allow persons who are being attacked while in their homes to use force—including deadly force—in self-defense, often without the need to retreat. 

Currently, more than half of the states in the U.S. have some forms of Castle Doctrine or "stand your ground" laws. 

Castle Doctrine Theory

The Castle Doctrine originated as a theory of early common law, meaning it was a universally accepted natural right of self-defense rather than a formally written law. Under its common law interpretation, the Castle Doctrine gives people the right to use deadly force to defend their home, but only after having used every reasonable means to avoid doing so and trying to retreat safely from their attacker. 

While some states still apply the common law interpretation, most states have enacted written, statutory versions of Castle Doctrine laws specifically spelling out what is required or expected of persons before resorting to the use of deadly force.

Under such Castle Doctrine laws, defendants facing criminal charges who successfully prove they acted in self-defense according to the law may be fully cleared of any wrongdoing.  

Castle Doctrine Laws in Court 

In actual legal practice, formal state Castle Doctrine laws limit where, when, and who can legally use deadly force.

As in all cases involving self-defense, defendants must prove their actions were justified under the law. The burden of proof is on the defendant. 

Even though the Castle Doctrine statutes differ by state, many states utilize the same basic requirements for a successful Castle Doctrine defense. The four typical elements of a successful Castle Doctrine defense are: 

  • The defendant must have been inside his or her home when attacked and the building must be the defendant's regular place of residence. Attempts to apply the Castle Doctrine to defend the use of deadly force during attacks that happen in the defendant's yard or lot, but outside the home, typically fail. 
  • There must have been an actual attempt to illegally enter the defendant's home. Merely standing threateningly at the door or on the lawn will not qualify. In addition, the Castle Doctrine does not apply if the defendant had allowed the victim into the home, but decided to force them to leave.
  • In most states, the use of deadly force must have been "reasonable" under the circumstances. Typically, defendants who are unable to prove they were in actual danger of physical injury will not be allowed to claim defense under a Castle Doctrine law.
  • Some states still apply the common law Castle Doctrine edict that defendants have some level of duty to retreat or avoid the confrontation before using deadly force. Most state castle laws no longer require defendants to flee from their homes before using deadly force. 

In addition, persons claiming the Castle Doctrine as a defense cannot have started or have been the aggressor in the confrontation that resulted in the charges against them. 

The Castle Doctrine Duty to Retreat 

By far the most-often challenged element of the Castle Doctrine is the defendant's "duty to retreat" from the intruder. While the older common law interpretations required defendants to have made some effort to retreat from their attacker or avoid the conflict, most state laws no longer impose a duty to retreat. In these states, defendants are not required to have fled from their home or to another area of their home before using deadly force.

 

At least 17 states impose some form of duty to retreat before using deadly force in self-defense. Since the states remain split on the issue, attorneys advise that persons should fully understand the Castle Doctrine and duty to retreat laws in their state. 

"Stand Your Ground" Laws

State-enacted "stand your ground" laws—sometimes called "no duty to retreat" laws—are often used as an allowable defense in criminal cases involving the use of deadly force by defendants who literally "stood their ground," rather than retreating, in order to defend themselves and others against actual or reasonably perceived threats of bodily harm.

In general, under "stand your ground" laws, private individuals who are in any place they have a lawful right to be at the time may be justified in using any level of force whenever they reasonably believe they face an "imminent and immediate" threat of great bodily injury or death. 

Persons who were engaged in illegal activities, such as drug deals or robberies, at the time of the confrontation are typically not entitled to the protections of "stand your ground" laws. 

In essence, "stand your ground" laws effectively extend the protections of the Castle Doctrine from the home to any place a person has a legal right to be.

Currently, 28 states have legislatively enacted "stand your ground" laws. Another eight states apply the legal principles of "stand your ground" laws though courtroom practices, such as citation of past case law as precedent and judges' instructions to juries.

 

Stand Your Ground Law Controversy 

Critics of "stand your ground" laws, including many gun control advocacy groups, often call them “shoot first” or “get away with murder” laws that make it difficult to prosecute people who shoot others claiming they acted in self-defense. They argue that in many cases the only eyewitness to the incident who could have testified against the defendant's claim of self-defense is dead.

Prior to passage of Florida's "stand your ground" law, Miami police chief John F. Timoney called the law dangerous and unnecessary. "Whether its 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," he said. 

The Trayvon Martin Shooting

The fatal shooting of teenager Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman in February 2012, brought “stand your ground” laws squarely into the public spotlight.

Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch captain in Sanford, Florida, gunned down the unarmed 17-year-old Martin minutes after reporting to the police that he had spotted a "suspicious" youth walking through the gated community. Despite being told by police to stay in his SUV, Zimmerman pursued Martin on foot. Moments later, Zimmerman confronted Martin and admitted to shooting him in self-defense after a brief scuffle. Sanford police reported that Zimmerman was bleeding from the nose and back of the head.

As a result of the police investigation, Zimmerman was charged with second degree murder.

At trial, Zimmerman was acquitted based on the jury’s finding that he had acted in self-defense. After reviewing the shooting for potential civil rights violations, the federal Department of Justice, citing insufficient evidence, filed no additional charges. 

Before his trial, Zimmerman's defense hinted that they would ask the court to drop the charges under Florida's "stand your ground" self-defense law. The law enacted in 2005, allows individuals to use deadly force when they reasonably feel they are at risk of great bodily harm while engaged in a confrontation. 

While Zimmerman's lawyers never argued for a dismissal based on the "stand your ground" law, the trial judge instructed the jury that Zimmerman had had a right to "stand his ground" and use deadly force if reasonably necessary to defend himself. 

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Longley, Robert. "An Overview of the 'Castle Doctrine' and 'Stand Your Ground' Laws." ThoughtCo, Oct. 27, 2017, thoughtco.com/the-castle-doctrine-721361. Longley, Robert. (2017, October 27). An Overview of the 'Castle Doctrine' and 'Stand Your Ground' Laws. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/the-castle-doctrine-721361 Longley, Robert. "An Overview of the 'Castle Doctrine' and 'Stand Your Ground' Laws." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/the-castle-doctrine-721361 (accessed December 17, 2017).