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

A figure is entering through a window while a couple calls 911 and considers using a gun to defend themselves
Illustration by Hugo Lin. ThoughtCo.

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 Amber Guyger Trial

The castle doctrine played a major role in the October 2019 trial of former Dallas police officer Amber Guyger, who said she mistakenly entered the wrong apartment and killed the resident. Guyger, 31, was indicted on a murder charge after she killed Botham Jean, an accountant, in September 2018. Jurors were instructed to find whether Guyger was guilty of murder, manslaughter, or neither.

Prosecutors in the case objected to allowing the castle doctrine to be applied because rather than defending her home, Guyger, had been in Jean’s home when she shot the 26-year-old man. However, the judge allowed it and the defense made the best of it.

Defense attorneys argued it was reasonable for Guyger to have believed that she was in her home and it was a mistake any ordinary person would have made in a similar situation.

Guyger’s attorneys argued it was reasonable that she thought she was in her home and that it was a mistake any ordinary person would make in such a situation. Therefore, it was reasonable to find that she acted in self-defense.

Guyger testified she had entered Jean’s apartment thinking it was hers and believed she encountered a burglar who might kill her. Jean’s apartment was one floor above Guyger’s.

“The law recognizes that mistakes can be made. It’s always tragic. The law’s not perfect. It’s tragic, but you have to follow this law,” defense attorney Toby Shook said during closing statements.

5Shook said when self-defense is raised, prosecutors “must prove beyond a reasonable doubt the defendant wasn’t acting in self-defense … And if they can’t do that, it’s not guilty.”

“Who would not have sympathy for Botham Jean? Wonderful human being—died in these horrible, tragic circumstances,” Shook said. “Who would not have sympathy for his family or anyone in that position? Everyone does, but that is not part of your consideration as a jury.”

The prosecution. However, contended that Guyger must have seen numerous signs indicating she was on the wrong floor and in the wrong apartment, including a skylight, a neighbor’s decorative planter, Jean’s red doormat, and differences in the hallways.

“So, her eyes aren’t working, her ears aren’t working, her sense of touch isn’t working, her sense of smell isn’t working? I mean, my God. This is crazy,” prosecutor Jason Fine, said. “It was unreasonable. She should have known she was in the wrong apartment.”

Lead prosecutor Jason Hermus argued that castle doctrine self-defense claims must pass a multi-prong test, and Guyger failed to meet two of the standards: that her use of deadly force was “immediately necessary” and she had no other alternative, and needed to employ deadly force for protection.

Guyger was safe in the hallway, behind a door when she first suspected an intruder was in her home, Hermus said. She had a police radio and a phone to call authorities. She could’ve taken cover behind a nearby set of fire doors or retreated down the hallway, Hermus said.

Fine said if an intruder barged in on Jean, he “has a right to shoot that person under castle doctrine, not the other way around.”

“It protects homeowners against intruders and now all of a sudden, the intruder is trying to use it against the homeowner,” Fine said. “This law is not in place for her, it’s in place for Botham.”

Dallas police fired Guyger after the shooting.

On October 2, 2019, Guyer was sentenced to 10 years in state prison by the same jury that had convicted her of murder

On March 30, 2022, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals refused Wednesday to hear Guyger’s petition to review a lower court’s decision to uphold her 2019 conviction and sentence.

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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Your Citation
Longley, Robert. "An Overview of the 'Castle Doctrine' and 'Stand Your Ground' Laws." ThoughtCo, Jul. 28, 2022, Longley, Robert. (2022, July 28). An Overview of the 'Castle Doctrine' and 'Stand Your Ground' Laws. Retrieved from Longley, Robert. "An Overview of the 'Castle Doctrine' and 'Stand Your Ground' Laws." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 5, 2023).