January 12, 2018

Many people confuse stand your ground laws with castle doctrine laws. While similar, both of these laws are frequently misunderstood.  Much of the misinformation is rooted in a misunderstanding of what these laws do. They’re not free get-out-of-jail cards.

Both of these legal concepts go back to 17th century English common law, in which much of American law still finds its basis. The idea was that the king and his soldiers would keep the peace, while everyone else should step aside and avoid violence whenever possible. 

Today, under standard self-defense laws, someone who’s under a dangerous threat must retreat if it’s safe to do so, with use of force only legally available as an absolute last resort — what’s called the “duty to retreat.” So through this standard you can only use deadly force if you cannot safely avoid harm or death by, for example, running away or hiding.

The “Castle doctrine” is a legal doctrine that designates a person’s abode or any legally occupied place – e.g., a vehicle or home – as a place in which that person has protections and immunities permitting one, in certain circumstances, to use force (up to and including deadly force) to defend oneself against an intruder, free from legal prosecution for the consequences of the force used.   The castle doctrine is not a defined law that can be invoked, but a set of principles, which may be incorporated in some form in the law of many jurisdictions.

“Stand your ground” laws are by and large an expansion of “castle doctrine”, which allow the use of deadly force even if you can safely retreat while under imminent threat of harm or death everywhere except your home, office or car.

The key point with “stand your ground” laws is that they are only relevant if you can safely retreat from an attack. If you can’t safely retreat, a self-defense law will protect your use of force. If you can safely retreat, a “stand your ground” law is needed to justify use of force — unless you’re in your home, where a “castle doctrine” law may apply.


Controversy surrounding Stand Your Ground Laws

Supporters of “stand your ground” laws argue that they not only legally allow people to defend themselves from criminal acts, but also deter would-be criminals from carrying out an attack. The thinking is simple: If would-be criminals know that just about anyone can turn around and use up to lethal force when under threat, these wrongdoers are going to be less likely to carry out criminal acts. The effect of this, advocates argue, is a safer society overall.

The big argument against “stand your ground” laws: that they legally empower people to use force even when it’s not necessary, and that could lead to more unnecessary violence.

Over half of the states in the United States have forms of “Stand-Your-Ground” or “Castle Laws” laws on their books, and more states are considering adding these laws. For your own protection, you need to know which laws apply in your state.


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