The Castle Doctrine, also referred to as ‘castle laws’, refers to legislation that protects individuals from prosecution for using whatever level of force that they feel is appropriate toward an intruder in their home or other property over which they have exclusive control. These statutes, passed on the state level, free residents or property owners from having to justify any action taken against a trespasser, regardless of whether or not the trespasser is armed or is exhibiting threatening behavior. While most American laws governing self-defense require an individual to retreat as far as possible prior to using force, based on standards established by English common law, castle laws provide an exception based on the location of the confrontation. Under these laws, a resident confronting an intruder actually has more protection from criminal and civil liability in the use of deadly force than does a police officer (Ren, Zhang & Zhao, 2012). In some states castle laws have been expanded into ‘stand your ground’ laws, which remove the requirement that an individual retreat as far as possible prior to resorting to potentially deadly force in all locations, public and private (Cheng & Hoekstra, 2013). These ‘no-retreat’ laws have changed the legal landscape in many states, but have they provided the deterrent to crime and increased safety for potential victims of crime for which they were designed?
In 2005, Florida became the first state to expand its existing castle law, protecting homeowners from prosecution for the use of force without having to retreat, to a ‘stand your ground’ law granting this protection in any location. Since that time, over twenty other states have passed similar laws (Ren, Zhan & Zhao, 2012). Proponents of castle laws argue that they add a necessary level of protection for potential crime victims who should not have to worry about legal consequences while they are in the process of defending themselves. Critics argue that the law already provides this protection, and that castle laws will lead to an increase in lethal outcomes in confrontations between alleged criminals and potential victims. Research into the effects of these laws on crime rates and the numbers of serious injury and/or homicide resulting from no-retreat defense cases is ongoing, and the results are currently limited, due to the relatively short period of time that these laws have been in effect. Cheng and Hoekstra (2013) conducted a study of the potential effect of these laws on crime deterrence and the homicide rate in twenty-one states where they are in effect, using FBI state level crime data collected between 2000 and 2010. The results indicate that the castle laws did not significantly reduce the rate of the targeted crimes (burglary, robbery, and assault) in these states, and that the homicide rate showed an increase of eight per cent. While the authors admit that they were unable to determine what percentage of these 600 additional homicides in the twenty-one state sample were legally justifiable, they posit that some percentage of them were not (Cheng and Hoekstra, 2013).
The potential negative effects of castle laws appear to outweigh the benefits that those who support them argue for (Jansen & Nugent Borokove, 2009). No homeowner should have to risk harm to him- or herself or their family from an intruder through fear of legal consequences for taking reasonable action in self-defense, but no one should feel completely free of legal restraint when deciding whether to use lethal force against another person, either. Every incident is different in terms of the specific circumstances, and laws preceding the castle laws allowed victims and defendants to present their cases before judges and juries to determine the legality of their actions.
- Cheng, C., & Hoekstra, M. (2013). Does strengthening self-defense law deter crime or escalate violence?: Evidence from expansions to castle doctrine. Journal of Human Resources, 48(3), 821-854. doi:10.3368/jhr.48.3.821
- Jansen, S., & Nugent-Borakove, M.E. (2009). Expansions to the castle doctrine: Implications for policy and practice. National District Attorneys Association-American Prosecutors Research Institute. www.ndaa.org/pdf/Castle%20Doctrine.pdf
- Ren, L., Zhang, Y. & Shao, J.S. (2012). The deterrent effect of the Castle Doctrine law on burglary in Texas: A tale of outcomes in Houston and Dallas. Crime & Delinquency, 61(8), 1127-1151. https://doi.org/10.1177/0011128712466886