Civil Rights

Can You Use Deadly Force to Defend Yourself?

You hear someone trying to enter you house at night. You are accosted by a threatening stranger on the street. In these frightening situations, are you allowed to use deadly force to protect yourself?

It depends on where you live. Laws differ from state to state. What may be considered self-defense in one state can be grounds for a murder or manslaughter indictment in another. It is important to know the laws in the state where you live, especially if you own a gun.

The Castle Doctrine Applies to Homes

More than half of the states have adopted some version of the castle doctrine, which states that people can protect themselves in their own homes – in some instances using deadly force. It is based on the old common law principle that one’s home is one’s castle. Any resident has the right to defend it.

Castle doctrine laws vary from state to state. In some states, there is a duty to retreat before using deadly force. In others, there is not. In some states, the law applies to protection of both persons and property, and in other states the risk is restricted to persons. In some states, this right also extends to variations on a person’s “home,” such as a person’s car, business or place of employment.

The castle doctrine allows homeowners to protect themselves against real threats. Unfortunately, this law has often resulted in the death or injury of a person who is drunk, on drugs or mentally impaired and who attempted to enter the wrong house by mistake.

Stand Your Ground Laws Apply to Public Places

“Stand your ground” laws extend the concept of the castle doctrine to public places, allowing crime victims who are in fear of grave harm to use deadly force to defend themselves outside the home.

Stand your ground laws are relatively new. Since 2005, they have been adopted in 22 states, including Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah and West Virginia.

The general thrust of these laws is to remove the long-standing legal duty to retreat in face of danger when in a public place.

The Florida version, which was the first such law passed, states: “A person who is not engaged in an unlawful activity and who is attacked in any other place where he or she has a right to be has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another, or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.”

In the Wake of Zimmerman

Stand your ground laws were the subject of much debate throughout the 2013 Florida trial in which George Zimmerman was acquitted for shooting and killing an unarmed teenager named Trayvon Martin, even though Zimmerman did not invoke the law in his defense. In the wake of this decision, both Dem. Pres. Barack Obama and Rep. Sen. John McCain have urged state legislatures to review these laws.

Call a Criminal Defense Lawyer

The law surrounding the right to defend yourself with deadly force in your home or in a public place can be complicated. Plus, the facts of each case and the laws in each state are different. This article provides a brief, general introduction to the subject. It is not legal advice. For more detailed, specific information about your situation, please contact a criminal defense attorney.

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