You're suddenly awoken from a deep slumber because your partner has heard someone tiptoeing around downstairs. Startled, you remember you have a shotgun so you retrieve it. When is it legal to kill an intruder in your home? The answer depends on the law of your state and the particular circumstances.
Under English common law, your home was your castle and you had a right to defend it. The modern American "castle doctrine" likewise says that you can't be thrown in jail for using deadly force against most unlawful intruders. You don't have to retreat from your home even if you could safely do so. All states have adopted some variation of this legal doctrine, which differs from so-called "stand your ground" laws adopted by some states.
How Does the Castle Doctrine Work?
The castle doctrine allows you to establish a self-defense justification for using lethal force against an intruder in your home. For example, the doctrine may shield you from criminal prosecution -- and sometimes also from civil liability -- for shooting an unarmed prowler or your inebriated neighbor who was breaking into your garage to retrieve some tools he had lent you.
Each state has its own version of the doctrine, and some offer greater legal protection when confronting intruders than others do. In places that have adopted a broad version of the castle doctrine, you have the right to use deadly force against almost any person who has broken into your home. Other states take a narrower approach by, for instance, requiring evidence that the intruder was attempting to commit a felony. In some states, your workplace and occupied vehicle are deemed part your "castle." That is, you can use deadly force against intruders in those places as if they'd broken into your home.
Examples of Different State Castle Doctrines
Some examples of state variations may help. In North Carolina, which has a broad version of the castle doctrine, it's relatively easy to establish self-defense because a person who "unlawfully and forcibly" enters your home is presumed to intend violence, and you are presumed to have a reasonable fear of harm. These presumptions may keep you out of jail if, for instance, you shoot your unarmed neighbor searching for his tools. Defense of your occupied car or workplace is treated the same way.
In contrast, under Illinois' more limited version of the castle doctrine, you're allowed to use deadly force only if an intruder is engaged in the commission of a felony or enters your home in a "violent, riotous or tumultuous manner" (in the statute's words) making you reasonably fear harm. Also, your vehicle and workplace are not part of your castle in Illinois.
Castle Doctrine vs. Stand Your Ground
There is another self-defense doctrine called "stand your ground," which is distinct from the castle doctrine. It applies when you face a threat of violence in other locations, such as on a public street.
In general, stand your ground laws say that you may lawfully use force to defend yourself and others without first attempting to retreat from the danger. However, certain conditions must be met, such as using an amount of force that's proportional to the threat.
Only about half of the states have stand your ground laws. In places that lack them, you may have difficulty establishing self-defense outside of your home if you could've safely retreated instead of using deadly force.
Get Legal Help Understanding the Castle Doctrine
The issues surrounding the use of lethal force against intruders can be complex. So, whether you're just curious about your state's laws or you're actually being investigated for harming an unarmed prowler, it's in your best interest to speak with a skilled criminal defense attorney near you.