Castle Doctrine: defending your home in California
Castle doctrine is a legal concept which dates back to the colonial era. Although laws have changed greatly since then, the notion that “a man’s home is his castle” has withstood the test of time.
In California, the use of deadly force to protect one’s home and the inhabitants within is justified under the law, but only under certain circumstances. This topic is of particular interest to gun owners, but all adults should be aware of their rights and responsibilities when it comes to home defense.
“A man’s home is his castle.” That phrase has been used for eons and refers to the fact that the home of a man or woman is his/her pride and joy and that he/she intends to defend it, no matter what it takes. The home is a sanctuary where a family should feel safe.
Whether you own or rent your home, chances are that you probably agree with that sentiment. So, if a moment arises in which you feel the need to defend your home with deadly force, is it okay for you to do so? And if you hurt or kill someone in the process, will you be held responsible? Those are questions that many Californians ask, particularly those who are gun owners.
Many states have a so-called “castle doctrine”, a collection of laws and legal precedence that determines when and how one can defend their “castle” – their home. This legal concept dates back to 17th century England and was prevalent in early America, although laws were worded differently back then.
Today, states have various laws which regulate the use of deadly force to defend one’s self and others within the context of the home. Penal code section 198.5 defines California’s version of castle doctrine, and reads:
“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.”
Simply put, according to the laws of California, the use deadly force is justified when all four of the following conditions are met:
The deadly force is used against a person who is not a resident of the home
The person using the deadly force in their home reasonably believed they or person was in immediate danger of being seriously injured or killed
The person using the deadly force believed that it was the only way to stop that imminent danger
They used no more force than was necessary to stop the threat
California penal code section 198.5 — sometimes called the “Home Protection Bill Of Rights” — includes the language, “presumed to have held a reasonable fear…,” which means that if an intruder (a non-household member) made an unlawful, forcible entry into a home, the residents automatically have good reason to believe they are about to be killed or face serious bodily injury. The residents of a home are not required to wait and see whether the intruder actually intends to hurt or kill them; it is reasonable for them to assume they are in danger if an intruder is present.
Limits on use of deadly force in home defense
However, California law also limits how deadly force may be lawfully used; castle doctrine does not permit the unrestricted use of force. For example, if the intruder is frightened by the homeowner’s gun and tries to leave, the homeowner can’t shoot him in the back as he flees, because the danger is no longer present as soon as the intruder attempts to exit the home. Likewise, if the homeowner shoots and wounds the intruder in the leg, causing him to fall to the ground, but then fires a few more shots which strike the intruder in the chest and kill him, the homeowner could potentially be convicted of a crime, because the deadly force used was excessive and the threat was no longer imminent.
The police and home defense incidents
Even if you believe you have abided by California’s version of castle doctrine and are convinced that you had no choice but to shoot or otherwise harm a person who forcibly entered your home, you may still find yourself facing criminal charges.
Remember that when calling 911 and after police arrive at the location of the incident, you have the right to remain silent. The best course of action is to simply state something like, “I’m pretty shaken up right now, and I don’t want to make any statements without my attorney present.” If the police pressure you to explain what happened or to answer questions, remain firm and tell them again that you need to speak with your attorney first.
It is important to understand that if you choose to use deadly force to protect your home you can potentially be charged with a felony such as assault with a deadly weapon or homicide. Also, the intruder or any of their survivors may seek monetary compensation by filing a civil lawsuit against you. Castle doctrine does not grant automatic immunity from legal consequences. Often, a judge and/or jury will make the decision as to whether the use of deadly force was justifiable under the law.
If you are charged with a crime after a home invasion and self-defense scenario plays out, an experienced criminal defense lawyer can help you prove that you did indeed act reasonably under the circumstances, and that you should be absolved of any crime. Through interviews and investigations, your defense attorney can craft a case that gives you the best possible chance for a favorable outcome. Your attorney can assist with other issues as well, such as getting you released from custody while your case is pending.