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How Castle Doctrines Protect and Offend People

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Protected Places or Protected People?

The following story is for informational purposes only and is not, nor is it intended to provide, legal advice. The reader should consult with an appropriate professional regarding their individual situation. Any use of the information contained in this article shall be solely at the reader’s risk.

Your home is your castle. That’s the underlying theme of castle doctrine laws, intended to allow people to defend their homes and lives without fear of prosecution. You may be forced to make a split-second decision on using deadly force; these laws are designed to prevent prosecutors from second guessing your life-or-death decision.

Florida Leads The Way
Have you read many news reports about Florida residents being prosecuted for shooting intruders inside their own homes? Probably not, because “those people just aren’t getting arrested due to Florida’s strong castle doctrine,” according to criminal defense attorney John P. Leombruno of the Arnold Law Firm in Jacksonville, Florida. “We have two main self-defense laws that apply, but they work very similarly and, sometimes, together. Our castle doctrine protects people in their safest places — their homes and cars. And our stand your ground law protects law-abiding citizens wherever they have a right to be. The castle doctrine law has been working very well to prevent the arrest of people who shoot an intruder inside their own home. The stand your ground cases, however, can be tougher.”

Since updating and strengthening its castle doctrine in 2005, Florida’s residents have enjoyed a law that wholeheartedly favors the victim, not the criminal, in self-defense shooting cases. The law-abiding homeowner, not the uninvited intruder, is presumed to have acted reasonably (innocently). This presumption of innocence, according to John Leombruno, is what makes Florida’s castle doctrine the mother-of-all self-defense laws: “The best thing about our castle doctrine is the presumption that comes with it. If you’re in your house or car, and someone is coming in, and they don’t have an invitation to be there, there is a presumption that they intend to do you harm.”

Shallow depth of field image taken of yellow law enforcement line with police car and lights in the background.Forensics takes a DNA sample to sterile sticks with gun found at the crime scene

Florida was the first state to establish this presumption of reasonableness in certain situations, but it’s no longer alone. Florida’s law has become the statute of choice for other state legislatures looking for a castle doctrine role model. According to another Florida attorney, Eric Friday of the law firm Kingry and Friday, most states that have passed a castle doctrine law since 2005 have emulated Florida’s statute in one or more ways. These states include Alabama, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Wyoming.

And in 2017, Florida lawmakers made another breakthrough to protect the innocent. In its amended form after this last legislative session, Florida’s law makes clear that a person accused of homicide need only tell the court that the castle doctrine applies because they were in their own home and the intruder they shot was uninvited. At that point, it’s up to the prosecution to prove, before any trial even begins, that an exception to the castle doctrine law applies. What might such an exception be? If, for example, the homeowner shot an on-duty law enforcement officer who had a right to enter the home, the prosecution will win the argument. Because this pre-trial process places the burden of proof on the prosecution, Florida’s law is now, once again, unique. It has been a long road in the United States to see the creation of this type of a castle doctrine.

Duty to Retreat
Before 1895, it was unclear whether Americans had a common law duty to retreat from a threat before using deadly force. But after a man with the last name of Beard shot a man when he came on Beard’s property to steal a cow, concealed firearm in his pocket, the United States Supreme Court stepped in to clarify. The Court decided that Beard had no duty to retreat when threatened on his own property and when he had not provoked the assault by Jones. Beard v. United States, 158 U.S. 550 (1895).

Later, the Supreme Court slightly expanded this decision such that there’s no common law duty for a person to retreat from anywhere he or she has a legal right to be, not just on their own property. Justice Holmes, in 1921, wrote the now famous words about the reason behind this basic “stand your ground” rule: “Detached reflection cannot be demanded in the presence of an uplifted knife.” Brown v. United States, 256 U.S. 335, 343 (1921).

Despite these Supreme Court decisions, individual states are free to pass their own castle doctrine and stand your ground laws, which may deviate from the SCOTUS’s basic premise. Thus, there’s a patchwork of variations across the country. Most states don’t impose a duty to retreat, and those that do often have a castle doctrine that serves as an exception. But these castle doctrines can vary greatly in the protection they provide, and the grand Florida-style protection is rare.

Spooky shadow of a man with knife in his hand looking through the dirty glass of the backdoor of a old house

Update: Florida’s lawmakers updated their castle doctrine and stand your ground laws in 2017 to require that the prosecution prove, by clear and convincing evidence, that the stand your ground or castle doctrine does not protect a shooter before the prosecutor may continue to place the shooter on trial for use of deadly force. If the prosecutor is unable to meet this burden before trial, then the shooter will not face trial. It took less than a month for a Florida judge to unravel this new aspect of Florida’s law, claiming that placing the burden on a prosecutor to disprove the applicability of the stand your ground or castle doctrine law is unconstitutional. This judge stated that only the courts, not the state legislature, can create this type of procedural law. It is likely that this ruling will be appealed.

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