Castle Doctrine

As a responsible self-defender, it’s important to be familiar with the various laws, legal theories, and legal terms related to self-defense. “Castle Doctrine” is one such legal theory. The belief you always have the right to defend yourself in your own home might naturally seem correct, but it often isn’t that simple. Your state’s law will tell you what your defense rights are within your castle. Your state’s law will also define “castle,” which in some states might include locations other than your home.  

What is the Castle Doctrine? 

The Castle Doctrine is the legal theory that may allow residents or occupants of a home to use deadly force to defend against violent home invaders. The law will always depend on the state in which you live, which is why it’s vital to know and understand the self-defense laws in your area. Castle Doctrine laws can broaden existing self-defense rights and justification under the law. This means it may give the person who defended themselves an expansion of legal justification in court, offering protection they might not have in a state without a strong Castle Doctrine law.  

Many Castle Doctrine laws also contain a legal presumption. This is used to direct the jury to presume, under certain circumstances, that the person was reasonable in their use of force or deadly force. A legal presumption can help prevent the second-guessing of actions after the fact that many people and jurors are prone to while participating in a self-defense case.  

In the most common self-defense cases, if a person is attacked and must use force or deadly force to defend their life or lives of loved ones, the person may likely be justified if the self-defense situation fits certain parameters. These parameters generally include meeting the “reasonable person standard” and reasonableness under the “totality of the circumstances.” At their simplest, these terms mean the person acting in self-defense must be defending against an immediate, qualifying threat with a reasonable degree of force. To be covered under the Castle Doctrine, the act of self-defense must occur in one of the locations listed in the law of the state where the action occurred (the “castle”) and must happen under certain circumstances and conditions.  

What is the “Reasonable Person Standard”? 

The reasonable person standard asks whether a hypothetical, reasonable person in the same situation would’ve used the same force or deadly force. Would a reasonable person have responded with the same degree of force? Would a reasonable person have believed that force was immediately necessary to prevent another person’s illegal use of force? There are nuances to this standard, but the basics of reasonable behavior always apply.  

What is the “Totality of the Circumstances”? 

The totality of the circumstances refers to the need to consider a variety of factors in a set of circumstances. This includes obvious details, such as the location or type of weapons wielded by the attacker, or a person’s physical size and health compared to the size and health of their attacker. The difference in physical fitness or vulnerability between a person and their attacker is often referred to as “disparity of force,” and it’ll often be considered by a jury.   

Every detail can be considered and investigated, including a person’s state of mind and what medications they might be taking.  

What is the Origin of the Castle Doctrine? 

The phrase “a man’s home is his castle” is commonly known, but it isn’t the complete original wording. In 1628, a jurist named Sir Edward Coke wrote in “The Institutes of the Laws of England”:  

For a man’s house is his castle, et domus sua cuique est tutissimum refugium [and each man’s home is his safest refuge].  

The term “Castle Doctrine” almost never appears in the language of a state’s statute, but this idea is generally codified in the state’s “justification” section of their code. We typically feel a person has a right to protect themselves in their own “castle.”  

When not in a castle, a person using force or deadly force is generally evaluated under other standards for justification. Typically, justification comes down to reasonableness. Generally, this means to be found not guilty, the person must have been reasonable in their use of force or deadly force. Of course, depending on the state, many other factors may come into play to be justified in using force or deadly force.  

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What Counts as a “Castle”? 

Primarily, your home is your castle; this is the broadly accepted definition of a castle in the United States. Modern interpretations of what may constitute a castle have evolved to sometimes include a vehicle, workplace, or even a hotel room. Whether the Castle Doctrine extends beyond your home depends on your state’s law. There are also other factors that must be taken into consideration.  

To be considered a castle under the law, your home, vehicle, or workplace generally must be occupied. An unoccupied structure is usually not covered under the Castle Doctrine. And if you reside in a state where the only structure covered by the Castle Doctrine law is your house, your unattached shed or carport will usually not be included (but other self-defense laws may apply).  

Does the Castle Doctrine Cover Self-Defense While in Your Vehicle? 

Whether the Castle Doctrine extends to your occupied vehicle depends on the state in which you live. Some states include places other than occupied homes, and some don’t. How “vehicle” is defined also depends on the state.  

What is the Difference Between “Castle Doctrine” and “Stand Your Ground” Laws? 

The Castle Doctrine outlines the circumstances in which you may be justified to defend yourself from physical harm and threats to your life in your home or other locations as covered by your state’s law. Stand Your Ground refers to the legal right not to retreat under certain circumstances (generally codified as “no duty to retreat”). In states where there’s a duty to retreat, or if you don’t meet the standards laid out in the law, you’re legally required to attempt to escape before defending yourself.  

A common misconception is that Castle Doctrine and Stand Your Ground laws are the same thing. They aren’t. However, Castle Doctrine almost always includes a Stand Your Ground component, such that no person has to flee the castle before using force or deadly force. It’s vital to understand that even if your state has a Castle Doctrine law, there’s no guarantee that it has a Stand Your Ground law. From a legal perspective, people will often have an easier time supporting their right to self-defense in states with both a Castle Doctrine and a Stand Your Ground law in place. But don’t be foolhardy; if you’re in a state with a strong Castle Doctrine law, even one supported by Stand Your Ground, the Castle Doctrine only provides a presumption. It’s possible for a presumption to be rebutted by a prosecutor and stripped from you in court, often by a prosecutor proving beyond a reasonable doubt that you didn’t act reasonably in your use of force or deadly force.  

Is the Castle Doctrine Absolute? 

No, a Castle Doctrine law isn’t a free pass for use of force or deadly force in your home, vehicle, workplace, or other location as covered by your state’s law. Generally, you’ll still have to prove that you acted in a reasonable manner, especially if your state doesn’t have a legal presumption of reasonableness in place. Suppose your state does give you a presumption of reasonableness; in that case, it can still be overcome by a prosecutor proving beyond a reasonable doubt that you didn’t act in accordance with the reasonable person standard. For example, suppose you had reason to know that the person who unlawfully entered your dwelling was a non-violent elderly person suffering from Alzheimer’s who posed no immediate threat. In that case, there’s a good possibility you’ll be found guilty at trial even with a Castle Doctrine law in place.  

What Should You Know About the Castle Doctrine? 

  • To be covered by the Castle Doctrine, you must be in a location included in your state’s law, and you must be legally allowed to be at that location, at that time.  
  • Being under the influence of alcohol or drugs will generally be a factor in the totality of the circumstances, even if the person’s use of the substance was legal.  
  • You should react in a reasonable way to a specific set of circumstances.  

To ensure you act in accordance with your state’s applicable Castle Doctrine or Stand Your Ground laws, take the time to familiarize yourself with your state’s laws.  

Legal Perspective 

The Castle Doctrine is an expansion of legal justification or, in some cases, a legal presumption of reasonableness that people are awarded in a trial, directing the jury to consider or presume that someone was reasonable in using force or deadly force to protect themselves or others in certain situations. This powerful tool may protect you from the wavering minds of an unpredictable jury and the artful arguments of prosecutors.  

What Else Should You Know About “Castle Doctrine” and Use of Force? 

In some states, like Texas, the Castle Doctrine is a strong presumption that is intertwined with Stand Your Ground laws. There, the law will presume a person’s reasonableness in believing that force or deadly force was immediately necessary to defend against another’s use of unlawful force or deadly force. And generally, states with strong Castle Doctrine statutes will read similarly to Texas’, where a person is awarded the strong presumption of the Castle Doctrine when:  

  • a person has unlawfully and with force entered, or was attempting to enter your: occupied habitation, vehicle, or place of business or employment; or  
  • a person has unlawfully and with force removed or is attempting to remove you from your occupied habitation, vehicle, place of business, or employment.  

As you can see, there are two types of attacks that fall under this type of Castle Doctrine: (1) intrusions to your castle, and (2) attempts to remove you from your castle.  

What is Texas’ Castle Law? 

Castle Doctrine in Texas: 

In Texas, the Castle Doctrine is very clear, and a person can easily (and intuitively) operate within its bounds. As long as you’re in a place you have a right to be, you aren’t committing a criminal act, you didn’t provoke the interaction, and your use of force is justified, you’re awarded the Castle Doctrine presumption. And regarding committing criminal acts, the Texas Castle Doctrine still applies when you’re committing a Class C misdemeanor regulating traffic but cuts off with anything higher. So, if you happen to have a lead foot, it won’t preclude your ability to protect yourself under the Castle Doctrine. See Tex. Penal Code §§  9.31-.32. 

Even other states that generally have vastly different approaches from Texas—like Illinois and California—have very similar requirements for their Castle Doctrine laws.  

Castle Doctrine According to Some States 

Castle Doctrine in Illinois: 

Illinois has a Castle Doctrine law, but it pertains only to the dwelling. Defending yourself in an otherwise occupied vehicle or workplace won’t qualify you for the presumption in Illinois. However, for the home, this Castle Doctrine—comprised of two corresponding laws—still provides a strong justification, which allows a person to defend themselves in the home. 720 Ill. Comp. Stat. Ann. 5/7-1(a) reads:   

A person is justified in the use of force against another when and to the extent that he reasonably believes that such conduct is necessary to defend himself or another against such other’s imminent use of unlawful force. However, he is justified in the use of force which is intended or likely to cause death or great bodily harm only if he reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself or another, or the commission of a forcible felony. 

As with most states, a person can usually only use deadly force in Illinois to protect a human life. This self-defense statute, which allows a person to defend themselves against an attacker when the person’s life is at stake, supports 720 Ill. Comp. Stat. Ann. 5/7-2(a), which pertains to the defense of a dwelling:  

A person is justified in the use of force against another when and to the extent that he reasonably believes that such conduct is necessary to prevent or terminate such other’s unlawful entry into or attack upon a dwelling.However, he is justified in the use of force which is intended or likely to cause death or great bodily harm only if: (1) The entry is made or attempted in a violent, riotous, or tumultuous manner, and he reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent an assault upon, or offer of personal violence to, him or another then in the dwelling, or (2) He reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent the commission of a felony in the dwelling. 

These two statutes together create the Castle Doctrine justification. The first statute says a person is justified in using deadly force against another when a human life is at stake or when the attacker is in the commission of a forcible felony. Forcible felonies include murder, aggravated criminal sexual assault, burglary, kidnapping, etc. The second statute supports the defense of a dwelling, which justifies a person’s use of deadly force when entry into the home is in a violent, riotous, or tumultuous manner, which he believes requires deadly force, or he seeks to prevent the commission of a felony in the dwelling. Therefore, when a person seeks to protect themselves in their dwelling, they have two statutes on which to rely: the general rule of 720 Ill. Comp. Stat. Ann. 5/7-1(a) and the allowance of statute 720 Ill. Comp. Stat. Ann. 5/7-2(a).  

Castle Doctrine in California: 

California also provides strong Castle Doctrine protections. Under Cal. Penal Code § 198.5:  

Any person using force intended or likely to cause death or great bodily injury within his or her residence shall be presumed to have held a reasonable fear of imminent peril of death or great bodily injury to self, family, or a member of the household when that force is used against another person, not a member of the family or household, who unlawfully and forcibly enters or has unlawfully and forcibly entered the residence and the person using the force knew or had reason to believe that an unlawful and forcible entry occurred. 

First, as the statute provides, this special justification for the use of deadly force only applies when an intruder unlawfully and forcibly enters a home. In essence, this usually occurs when there’s a break-in. As such, this law doesn’t apply to trespassers on private property outside the home. Nor does it apply to family squabbles that develop inside the home, or even to a previously welcomed guest who is then ordered to leave. There would be no Castle Doctrine defense in any of these situations. However, just like with Texas, this is a strong presumption of reasonableness.  

Castle Doctrine in New Jersey: 

Although the Castle Doctrine exists in New Jersey within the confines of the dwelling, your actions can always be challenged as unreasonable. To employ the protections of the Castle Doctrine, many factors are considered: what you are doing, where you are, who the other party is, and what they are doing. While there’s no statutory duty to retreat or withdraw, the Castle Doctrine only applies if the following conditions are met.  

As typical, you cannot be the initial aggressor or have provoked the use of force against yourself in the same encounter with the purpose of death or serious bodily injury. You must be in your dwelling, which is generally your home where you sleep. Older, pre-code cases defined a dwelling to include not just the house itself, but also the doorway, threshold, and porch. Later cases, however, stop at the threshold and even query if a home may constitute multiple dwellings within (such as a bedroom exclusive to you).  

The status of the person against whom force or deadly force is being used further affects the conditions for use of force. For example, if an intruder is unlawfully in the dwelling, you must reasonably believe that force is immediately necessary to protect yourself or others within the dwelling. For cohabitants or someone otherwise privileged to be in the dwelling, the encounter must be sudden, unexpected, and compel you to act instantly to protect yourself. The extension of the Castle Doctrine to cohabitants was the legislative response in 1999 to State v. Gartland, a case in which a victim of domestic abuse was obligated to retreat under the then-law because she was attacked by a cohabitant. Now, you can remain in the dwelling, but the reasonableness of your actions is always in play.  

Regardless of the other party’s status, use of force is only permitted if there is a finding of reasonable belief, which can be established by the immediacy of the action and the harm threatened by the other person; or by statute, if you demand the intruder to disarm, surrender, or withdraw, and the intruder refuses to do so. See N.J. Stat. Ann. § 2C:3-4. This doesn’t mean you must do the latter in all circumstances, but the legislature provided this as one way to establish reasonable belief by statute. New Jersey’s more narrowed application of the Castle Doctrine serves as a reminder to always know the law of the state you are in.  

Castle Doctrine in New Mexico: 

Sometimes, statutory Castle Doctrine isn’t what it appears on its face value. For example, the New Mexico Castle Doctrine statutes have been substantially limited by case law and the uniform jury instructions. The Castle Doctrine in New Mexico applies when:  

  • The place where the killing occurred was being used as the defendant’s dwelling;  
  • It appeared to the defendant that the commission of the violent felony was immediately at hand and that it was necessary to kill the intruder to prevent the commission of the violent felony; and  
  • A reasonable person in the same circumstances as the defendant would have acted the same way the defendant did. UJI 14-5170  NMRA.  

Note that all the aforementioned conditions must exist to have this legal defense work in court. Additionally, this doesn’t create a presumption for the actor, but merely allows for the justification of deadly force. In other words, this is an additional path to justify deadly force beyond the general rules listed above. Even then, it’s a question for the jury to decide at trial—which has its obvious risks.  

Still, New Mexico’s Castle Doctrine is a good example of how some states construct the concept outside of statutory language. In fact, New Mexico’s Castle Doctrine doesn’t exist in statutory language or legislation; rather, it’s provided through jury instruction.  

The States Summarized 

In short, the Castle Doctrine is strengthened when there’s no legal duty to retreat; however, even states that have enacted Castle Doctrine legislation may place more restrictions on what constitutes lawful conduct or reasonable actions, thereby offering weaker protections.  

But remember that if you’re in a state with a strong Castle Doctrine presumption, even one that’s supported with Stand Your Ground laws, the Castle Doctrine only provides a presumption. A presumption can be rebutted by a prosecutor and stripped from you.  

The Castle Doctrine Isn’t Absolute! 

Just because you used force or deadly force in your castle, it doesn’t mean you will automatically be found justified by a jury. If your state doesn’t provide a legal presumption, you’ll likely still have to prove that you acted reasonably. If your state does give you a presumption of reasonableness, this presumption can be overcome by a prosecutor beyond a reasonable doubt. For example, if the person who unlawfully and forcefully entered your dwelling is a uniformed Girl Scout with an armful of cookies, you’re likely to be found guilty at trial, even with your Castle Doctrine presumption.  

Castle Doctrine protections, especially when bolstered by Stand Your Ground laws, are a wonderful relief to the law-abiding gun owner. To make sure you’re complying with your state’s version of the Castle Doctrine or Stand Your Ground, check your state’s law.


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