Castle Doctrine

This post is excerpted from the blog “Pennsylvania Law Abiding Gun Owner’s Blog. Disclaimer: I am not an attorney. Nothing in this content constitutes legal advice. If you are in need of legal advice on this matter, retain a licensed, competent attorney in your relevant jurisdiction.

The Castle Doctrine stems from the principle “A Man’s Home Is His Castle”, and that an individual has a right to be safe in his or her home. Many states have different versions of the Castle Doctrine, and some allow the use of deadly force in more scenarios than others. Pennsylvania’s Castle Doctrine is quite extensive and permits the use of deadly force to defend yourself in a number of scenarios. Under Pennsylvania law, if you shoot someone,

First, if you’re not the initial aggressor, there is NO duty to retreat at home. In other words, if you are to use deadly force in self-defense at home, you will not lose your affirmative defense just because you didn’t sneak out your back door. In some states, if you can sneak out the back door safely, you must do so instead of using your firearm. Does this protection afforded to intruders encourage criminal activity? In Pennsylvania, we don’t have to worry about it.

Additionally, if you’re not the initial aggressor, there is generally no duty to retreat when you are at work. However, before you can use deadly force against a co-worker, you do have a duty to retreat if it can be done with complete safety. You can use your imagination as to why the legislature felt it necessary to include that exception. An interesting twist on deadly force against a co-worker at work would arise if a co-worker took another co-worker hostage. Imagine our “friend” Chris the Criminal, having taken a job in corporate America, losing his mind after the copy machine jammed one too many times. He grabs Cindy and places a knife against her throat, going on a wild rant about everything he hates about the world. If Larry the law abiding gun owner is behind Chris, he might be able to retreat with complete safety, for example, if there is an open door right behind him. However, Larry can use deadly force because Cindy is entitled to use deadly force. Cindy can’t retreat with complete safety. Chris has already shouted at Cindy “Make one move and you’ll be cold before you hit the floor!” In this instance, (1) if Larry was in the same situation of the third party under attack (Cindy), Larry would have the legal right to use the force he is going to use (deadly force); (2) Cindy would be legally justified in using deadly force to protect herself, and (3) Larry believes his intervention is necessary to protect Cindy. As a result, Larry is entitled to use deadly force to protect Cindy. This is a pretty clear cut example, but it illustrates the principle well.

The protections afforded by Pennsylvania’s Castle Doctrine through presumptions are set forth in PA ST 18 Pa.C.S. § 505(b)(2.1). As written above, these protections are relatively extensive. As such, for the purposes of this statute, your “castle” includes your dwelling, your residence, or your car if you are in it. With respect to vehicles, you or a family member must be in it. If the vehicle is unoccupied, the Castle Doctrine does not apply, because the vehicle is then considered property. However, if you have your toddler strapped into their car seat while you momentarily exit your car to drop an envelope in a mail box, you have Castle Doctrine presumption if a carjacker attempts to jack your car with your child in it. (There is a high probability the carjacker may face an additional charge of kidnapping.)

Notice how the statute uses the terms “dwelling” and “residence.” What does this mean? Basically, the Castle doctrine applies to more than just a house. A dwelling is “any building or structure, including any attached porch, deck or patio, though moveable or temporary, or a portion thereof, which is for the time being the home or place of lodging of the actor.”

This definition seems to include anywhere you would lay your head. Places such as apartments, trailers and hotel rooms have been specifically deemed covered under the Castle Doctrine and includes more than just inside. It includes any attached porch, deck or patio too. It also include rented cabins at state parks, and tents set up along the Appalachian Trail, as an example. Does this extend to a detached work shed? Generally not, unless it is designed for lodging, such as having a cot inside in case your wife got mad at you and told you to go sleep in the shed. If you are working on a wood project in your shed and decide to sleep on a cot inside it, rather than track sawdust into your home, an argument could be made that your shed is a place of lodging. What about motor homes? While the motor home is in motion, it is considered a vehicle. When it is parked for overnight lodging, it is considered a home.

A residence is defined as “a dwelling in which a person resides, either temporarily or permanently, or visits as an invited guest.” Consequently, Pennsylvania’s Castle Doctrine affords these protections even if you are not in your permanent home, and are just visiting. So in this case, if you are asked by a friend to house-sit while they are away, because they have given you permission to be in their house, you are therefore, afforded Castle Doctrine protection.

When you are in these locations, and certain circumstances are present, there is a presumption that you have a reasonable belief that deadly force is necessary to protect yourself against death, serious bodily injury, kidnapping, or sexual intercourse by force. If you recall, that is the very definition of when deadly force is permitted. Therefore, under the following scenarios, the law will presume that use of deadly force was reasonable:

  1. Somebody is in the process of unlawfully and forcefully entering your dwelling, residence or car (provided you’re in the car);
  2. Somebody has unlawfully and forcefully entered your dwelling, residence or car (provided you’re in the car); or
  3. Somebody is or is attempting to unlawfully and forcefully remove you or somebody else —against the will of the individual being removed— from your dwelling, residence or car (If they’re removing you or trying to, it’s safe to say you’re in the car).

In scenarios one and two, somebody is breaking in, or has already broken into your dwelling, residence, or car (if you’re in the car). In scenario one, picture somebody breaking the door down, breaking windows to get in, or in the case of a car, forcing their way through the door or window. In scenario two, they’re already in. This is the late night intruder who you find downstairs after hearing some noise, the burglar you wake up to bedside, or the carjacker who forced their way into the back seat when you stopped at a red light.

Scenario three is a bit different, because there is no “breaking in” involved. This might come into play in a nightmare scenario: somebody who is initially in your home with permission attempts to take you from your home.

Some notable exceptions to this presumption will likely seem fairly obvious to law abiding gun owners, such as the exceptions involving criminal activity (you have to have clean hands before using The Castle Doctrine) and using force against known police officers. The other two, while likely not an issue for responsible law abiding gun owners are perhaps less obvious exceptions. The first part of this paragraph means, in other words, you can’t be inside a meth lab, shoot someone, and claim Castle Doctrine protection. The second part means you cannot shoot police officers entering your dwelling in the performance of their duties (i.e. they are presenting you with a search warrant) and claim Castle Doctrine protection.

If the “intruder” is a resident or has a legal right to be in the home or car, the presumption doesn’t apply, so you lack this heightened protection. This applies to landlords & tenants (the statute specifically mentions “owner[s] or lessee[s]”), roommates, and members of the family unit. This does not mean that you can’t use deadly force against these people if they attempt to kill you, it just means the law will not afford you the presumption that they were doing so. With regards to landlords, if they enter your rental property and attempt to evict you with a “writ of eviction”, you cannot claim Castle Doctrine protection. If, on the other hand, they use a master key to enter your apartment and attempt to evict you without a writ, you can defend your home and claim Castle Doctrine protection.

Another exception involves custody disputes. The presumption does not apply if a parent, grandparent or other person with lawful custody attempts to remove a child from your home. Children are precious, and most parents would do anything in their power to protect them. However, while custody disputes are undoubtedly unfortunate, the law removes the presumption in efforts to avoid them being settled with deadly force.

While there are many situations in which deadly force is justified outside your home or car, Pennsylvania provides its citizens paramount protections in these locations. Understanding these protections will help you protect your status as a law abiding gun owner in the grievous even that deadly force is necessary in self-defense.

Another thing you need to keep in mind with regard to locations or places that fall under Castle Doctrine protections is jury psychology. Juries can be sympathetic to you defending yourself or your loved ones if the attack happens inside your home. However, juries have also been found to not be as sympathetic to locations or places outside the four walls of your home. Many juries believe that if something is going on outside your home and you go outside to investigate, you are “looking for trouble”, despite your actions being normal. You hear a commotion in the barn on your property, so you grab your gun and go out to investigate. Some juries don’t take so kindly on you doing your own investigative work, believing that you should have called the police to do that investigation.

What does a presumption of reasonableness mean?

It means that if you fall under the circumstances of The Castle Doctrine, then the prosecuting agency has a much tougher time convicting you. However, all of the protections of self-defense and The Castle Doctrine can be quickly overcome by your statement. Say for example someone comes into your house unlawfully and you know that the person is all alone. The person is actively carrying your big screen TV with both hands clearly occupied. You see this and you shoot. This is not justified self-defense or justified Castle Doctrine. This is a crime.

In summary, while most gun laws are designed against you, Castle Doctrine law starts ON YOUR SIDE. However, its protections can quickly evaporate with evidence. The previous example of a burglar holding your big screen TV in both hands. Clearly, the burglar is not a life-threatening intruder. If evidence shows that both his hands were occupied holding your TV, how could he reach for a firearm and threaten you? So Castle Doctrine is not a “get out of jail free” card. It just starts with the law in your corner. What this means is that you cannot be the initial aggressor and use your home as your personal Thunderdome.

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