Castle Doctrine

stand your ground

A Castle Doctrine is an American legal doctrine that designates a person’s abode (or, in some states, any place legally occupied, such as a car or place of work) as a place in which the person has certain protections and immunities and may in certain circumstances attack an intruder without becoming liable to prosecution. Typically deadly force is considered justified, and a defense of justifiable homicide applicable, in cases ‘when the actor reasonably fears imminent peril of death or serious bodily harm to himself or another.’ The doctrine is not a defined law that can be invoked, but a set of principles which is incorporated in some form in the law of most states.

The term derives from the historic English common law dictum that ‘an Englishman’s home is his castle.’ This concept was established as English law by 17th century jurist Sir Edward Coke, in his ‘The Institutes of the Laws of England’ (1628). This was carried by colonists to the New World, who later removed ‘Englishman’ from the phrase, which thereby became simply the Castle Doctrine. The term has been used to imply a person’s absolute right in England to exclude anyone from their home, although this has always had restrictions, and since the late twentieth century police have also had increasing powers of entry.

The term ‘Make My Day Law’ arose at the time of the 1985 Colorado statute that protects people from any criminal charge or civil suit if they use force – including deadly force – against an invader of the home. The law’s nickname is a reference to the line ‘Go ahead, make my day’ uttered by actor Clint Eastwood’s character Harry Callahan in the 1983 film ‘Sudden Impact,’ inviting a suspect to make himself liable to deadly retaliation by attacking Eastwood’s character.

Each state differs in the way it incorporates the castle doctrine into its laws, what premises are covered (abode only, or other places too), what degree of retreat or non-deadly resistance is required before deadly force can be used, etc. Typical conditions that apply to some Castle Doctrine laws include: An intruder must be making (or have made) an attempt to unlawfully or forcibly enter an occupied residence, business or vehicle; The intruder must be acting illegally—the Castle Doctrine does not give the right to attack, for example, officers of the law acting in the course of their legal duties; The occupant(s) of the home must reasonably believe that the intruder intends to inflict serious bodily harm or death upon an occupant of the home; In some states, the occupant(s) of the home must reasonably believe that the intruder intends to commit some lesser felony, such as arson or burglary; The occupant(s) of the home must not have provoked or instigated an intrusion, or provoked or instigated an intruder to threaten or use deadly force; and In all cases, the occupant(s) of the home must be there legally, must not be fugitives from the law or aiding or abetting another person in being a fugitive from the law, and must not use force upon an officer of the law performing a legal duty.

In addition to providing a valid defense in criminal law, many laws implementing the Castle Doctrine, particularly those with a ‘Stand-Your-Ground clause,’ also provide immunity from any lawsuit filed on behalf of the assailant for damages or injury resulting from the lawful use of not excessive force. Without this clause an assailant can sue for medical bills, property damage, disability, and pain and suffering as a result of the injuries inflicted by the defender, or their next-of-kin may sue for wrongful death in the case of a fatality. Even if successfully rebutted, the defendant (the homeowner defender) may have to pay high legal costs as a result of such lawsuits; without immunity, such civil action could be used for revenge against a defender acting lawfully.

According to Matthew Henry’s—and others’—understanding of the Torah, the prohibition of murder made an exception for legitimate self-defense. A home defender who struck and killed a thief caught in the act of breaking in at night was not guilty of bloodshed. ‘If a thief is caught breaking in and is struck so that he dies, the defender is not guilty of bloodshed; but if it happens after sunrise, he is guilty of bloodshed.’

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