It’s something you need to know if you ever have to act in self defense.
On September 22 2012, a man named Dan Fredenberg broke into the house of a man named Brice Harper. Fredenberg, 40, suspected that Harper, 24, was romantically involved with his wife. Fredenberg was drunk – he had a blood alcohol level of .08 – and wanted revenge on Harper. Harper had already been warned by Fredenberg’s wife that Fredenberg was coming. He was advised to lock his doors.
When Fredenberg stormed drunkenly into Harper’s house, Harper felt threatened and shot him. Fredenberg was dead by morning.
This was a case of self-defense and under Montana’s castle law, which allows homeowners to use lethal force if they feel threatened in their house, Fredenberg’s actions were justified.
But the incident has a few in Montana wondering about their castle law.
A castle law (also known as a castle doctrine or a defense of habitation law) is a legal doctrine that designates a person’s abode as a place in which that person has certain protections and immunities permitting him or her, in certain circumstances, to use force (up to and including deadly force) to defend himself or herself against an intruder, free from legal responsibility/prosecution for the consequences of the force used.
Does your state have a castle law? If yes, you’re allowed to defend your property at any cost. If not, you should know the law before you act in self defense.
The “Go ahead, make my day” law
Today most states have some kind of castle law. The tougher laws do not require homeowners to try to retreat before using force to protect their domicile, and there are a select few states that have very strong stand-your-ground laws allowing citizens to use force in their car or at work without first trying to retreat.
States like Texas allow citizens protecting their homes, car, or place of business or employment to use force – including lethal force – when an intruder has unlawfully entered or is attempting to enter using force; is attempting to remove someone from the home, car, or workplace by force; or is attempting to commit a crime such as rape, murder, or robbery. An attempt to retreat is not required before a citizen is justified in using force against the invasive party in Texas.
The state of Florida has such a strong Castle Doctrine that the dwelling being protected does not need to have a roof; can be mobile or immobile; and can be as temporary as a tent.
Other states with strong Castle Doctrine and stand-your-ground laws include: Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Montana, Nevada, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Utah, and Washington.
Softer Castle laws
Not all states give citizens as much leeway in protecting their personal property. States like California allow citizens to protect their homes with deadly force if they feel that they or another person are in physical danger, but does not extend to theft, and it only protects residents in their home, and not in cars or at work.
In New York you cannot use deadly force if you know with certainty that you can avoid an intruder by retreating. You can use deadly force if you are not the initial aggressor in an altercation within your home.
Other states with limited, little, or no castle law or case law giving citizens the rights to protect their homes using force include: Idaho, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Iowa, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Virginia, Vermont, and Washington, D.C.
Stand your ground laws
Many states have enacted so-called stand your ground laws that remove the duty to retreat before using force in self-defense. Florida passed the first such law in 2005, generally allowing people to stand their ground instead of retreating if they reasonably believe doing so will “prevent death or great bodily harm.”
Other states followed with laws specifically affirming one’s right to defend themselves, even outside of their homes and with deadly force if necessary. The wording of each state’s laws will vary, but typically require you to have the right to be at a location. State self-defense laws may also overlap, but generally fall into three general categories:
- Stand Your Ground: No duty to retreat from the situation before resorting to deadly force; not limited to your property (home, office, etc.).
- Castle Doctrine: Limited to real property, such as your home, yard, or private office; no duty to retreat (use of deadly force against intruders is legal in most situations); some states, like Missouri and Ohio, even include personal vehicles.
- Duty to Retreat: Must retreat from the situation if you feel threatened (use of deadly force is considered a last resort); may not use deadly force if you are safely inside your home.
Here are the states that have passed stand your ground laws:
- New Hampshire
- North Carolina
- South Carolina
- South Dakota
- West Virginia
Note: Some states have adopted stand your ground-like doctrines through judicial interpretation of their self-defense laws — but they are not included on this list.
Some states have self-defense laws on the books that are similar to stand your ground laws, often with at least one key difference. These laws generally apply only to the home or other real property (such as an office) and are often referred to as “castle doctrine” or “defense of habitation” laws. (See above)
Duty to Retreat States
On the other end of the legal spectrum, some states have laws imposing a duty to retreat. A duty to retreat generally means that you can’t resort to deadly force in self-defense if you can safely avoid the risk of harm or death (by running away, for example). If that is not an option, say if you were cornered or pinned down and facing serious harm or death, then you would be authorized to use deadly force in self defense. The following states impose some form of duty to retreat before using deadly self defense:
- New Jersey
- New York
- North Dakota
- Rhode Island
Note: Some states with castle doctrine laws also include a limited duty to retreat. Sometimes just locking the door is an act of self-defense.
New laws on self-defense crop up all the time. The statutes vary widely from state to state and may have minor, but crucial differences in their language and application. For an in-depth understanding of self defense laws and how they work in your state, contact a local criminal law attorney.