Self-Defense Law: Castle Doctrine Vs. Stand Your Ground

Self-Defense Law: Castle Doctrine Vs. Stand Your Ground

The author explains the difference between Castle Doctrine and Stand Your Ground and how they can affect you if you’re confronted with a deadly threat.

Castle Doctrine and Stand Your Ground (SYG) laws can be confusing, especially when misinformation in the self-defense community is spread by well-meaning people who simply want to abide by the law.

Before we can jump into SYG with both feet, let’s first discuss Duty to Retreat and how this important legal concept applies.

Duty To Retreat

All states have some form of Duty to Retreat statute. Most have no duty to retreat if certain conditions are met, while others have a duty to retreat prior to using deadly force, as long as it’s safe to do so.

For example, in my home state of Michigan, there’s no duty to retreat as long as you meet these four conditions:

  • 1) You are not in the commission of a crime;
  • 2) You are in a place you have a legal right to be;
  • 3) You have an honest and reasonable belief that deadly is necessary; and
  • 4) That deadly force is only to prevent imminent death, great bodily harm and/or sexual assault.

According to the most recent update from the National Association of State Legislatures, 28 states plus Puerto Rico have no duty to retreat from a deadly force attack as long as you are in a place you have a legal right to be lawfully present. A few states require you at least make an attempt to retreat to safety, as long as retreating doesn’t increase your risk of death or great bodily injury.

Skewed Public Perception

Stand Your Ground laws have found their way into the lexicon of the general public through what seems are weekly shootings across the United States. Although the news media try to define SYG, they usually make a poor attempt at explaining these laws, which further leads to the confusion and spread of misinformation.

So, essentially, SYG simply means you don’t have to retreat to safety, or try to escape the deadly force situation, as long as you meet the conditions laid out in your jurisdiction.

However, SYG isn’t quite that simple. If you can retreat, or avoid any fight, why wouldn’t you at least make an attempt to retreat to safety to avoid using deadly force? That said, sometimes using deadly force, or any level of force, requires that you act in the moment because there’s no time to retreat, or retreat alternative.

In Brown v. United States, 256 U.S. 335 (1921), an often-quoted U.S. Supreme Court decision even today, the Court held “that if a man reasonably believes that he is in immediate danger of death or grievous bodily harm from his assailant he may stand his ground, and that if he kills him he has not exceeded the bounds of lawful self-defense.”

Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, in writing the Court’s opinion stated, “Detached reflection is not required in the face of an uplifted knife.” Therefore, back as far as 1921 (and even farther), we see SYG in the common law and held by the Supreme Court.

Certainly, other case law has developed in the previous 100 years; however, the legal concept has always been there. For the most part, states have codified common law into statutes for their jurisdictions; some make it easier to understand and others have confused the issue. Know the rules and conditions in all jurisdictions you live, work and travel.

How it All Applies to Your Castle

Castle Doctrine is considered an exception to Duty to Retreat. This doctrine, in its most simple form, means that one doesn’t have to retreat from their own home (castle) before using deadly force. Even though you may have a back door exit or could climb out of a window to relative safety, there’s no need to do so.

In 1753, English jurist Sir William Blackstone published his four-volume set titled Commentaries on the Laws of England. England owned many colonies around the world, and the English laws sometimes didn’t make it to these outlying colonies and territories. Therefore, judges were left to make their own law as cases were presented to them. Blackstone’s purpose was to bring consistency of English law to all subjects of the Crown throughout the world.

In so many words, Blackstone opined that a man’s house is sacred and should be the last stronghold of immunity to attack. If someone attacks you in your home, you may defend against their attack with deadly force. That was Blackstone’s belief.

But you must be careful, because you can’t just shoot someone who breaks in to you castle. In most jurisdictions, you still can only defend against deadly force when deadly force is presented to you.

Outlying Factors

There are a few exceptions to the Castle Doctrine that need mentioning.

One exception is if your attacker lives in the same household, or in the house you own but you don’t live there. Think domestic situations. Some jurisdictions require you to retreat, in your own home, if your attacker lives with you, before using deadly force.

Even if you own the home but your ex-spouse has a court order keeping you out, you cannot use Castle Doctrine. What about a guest living in your home with you? Retreat may be required. If a person has a legal right to enter your home (police with warrant, child protective services or spouse), then Castle Doctrine is off the table.

The curtilage of your home is important as well. Some states include the curtilage as part of your home. The curtilage is defined as that area immediately surrounding your domicile. Some states will extend curtilage to the sidewalk or steps that are just beyond your porch, and a few states are very restrictive by only including the porch.

In Michigan, curtilage has expanded in recent years to include the flower bed area, as long as it’s in near proximity to the dwelling. How’s that for confusion? Some states might consider the detached garage as part of the curtilage, while others consider an attached garage as part of the home.

The pole barn or structure on the back forty? Not a part of your home as far as Castle Doctrine is concerned. Some jurisdictions have extended Castle Doctrine to your vehicle and your place of business.

But, you must keep this in mind: You can’t just shoot someone you find in your home. You must still have an honest and reasonable belief deadly force is necessary.

When I give legal lectures in educational environments, people still believe if someone breaks into my house, I can simply shoot them. No, not exactly. Again, in Michigan, people confuse this with our Rebuttable Presumption. Other states have it as well.

A rebuttable presumption means that it’s presumed that you have a legal right to use deadly force, with an honest and reasonable belief, simply because a person is in your home unlawfully, but that presumption can be rebutted by the prosecution if there’s any evidence that shows otherwise.

Such evidence could include a witness, a video camera, security camera or other information that can clearly show you didn’t have an honest and reasonable belief that you need to use deadly force. Video might show the criminal’s hands in the air giving up in the face of your gun. You shoot them anyway. Your self-defense claim just went out the window.

Learn Your Local Laws

So, Stand Your Ground and Castle Doctrine, although similar in some respects, are very different. You must still meet the conditions set forth in your jurisdiction, you must still have an honest and reasonable belief that deadly force is a necessity, the attack must be imminent (no opportunity to retreat), and you can’t claim self-defense if you are in the commission of a crime.

If you can retreat safely, without using deadly force, it’s best to do so. But if your attacker pursues you or doesn’t give you an opportunity to retreat, then you may have to resort to deadly force.

Check your jurisdiction and all those places you work, travel and reside. It’s a lot to consider if you choose to carry a firearm.

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the April 2022 issue of Gun Digest the Magazine.

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